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The One Where Blood Is Drawn

Chapter Text

She knew, of course. She knew the second he sauntered into the bullpen, and that in itself was downright freaky because a quick look assured him that EJ wasn't even here yet.

But Ziva, bless her instincts, just had to take one good look at him, and halfway through her greeting her eyes narrowed and she breathed in and the cheer trickled out of her voice.

She merely blinked, though, and finished her line, and that was it. No one else would have noticed any difference about her after that, except that she didn't talk to him all that much and left most of this morning's water cooler talk to McGee, but that could have just as easily been attributed to their work load.

*** *** ***

Three hours into the day Tony found that he couldn't deal with this strangely subdued Ziva too well. The grunts and non-committal gestures she gave him in response to both teasing and genuine questions bothered him far more than they should, really, and he refused to try and figure out the reasons for that on his end. He concentrated on getting a reaction out of her instead, and by now he didn't even care all that much what kind of reaction, just as long as she gave him one.

Part of him knew that this was a stupid and possibly suicidal idea. The part of him that felt vaguely guilty about sleeping with a coworker, but never his partner -- that part tried to cover up the failure. And since Anthony DiNozzo knew only one way to accomplish that, he did what he did best for the rest of the day: he was his most annoying self.

*** *** ***

He didn't think McGee ever noticed anything was off, and Tony wasn't sure if that was because the Probie was just so damn oblivious at times or because Ziva did such a good job at covering up while other people were around. Probably a bit of both. And really, Tony mused while he studied her unnaturally tense profile, he probably wouldn't have noticed anything himself if he hadn't become so obsessed with her minute reactions over the years.

It felt wrong on so many levels, true. But as long as he was having an honest moment with himself here, he could also admit that all the women in the world would probably never cure him of that.

*** *** ***

He breathed a sigh of relief when Gibbs told them to grab their gear because that meant something else to focus on besides the strange calmness that had overtaken his partner. Only when her gaze flicked to the desk across the hedge for a heartbeat he realized that EJ hadn't been in all day.

Suddenly he was no longer sure how this morning would have gone down if she had.

*** *** ***
Later, he couldn't even remember how he had gotten through this day. The only things that stuck to his mind clearly were silence that just wasn't like her at all and his own gradually deepening frown. And Gibbs, of course, who began to glance back and forth between them halfway through securing evidence as if he wasn't sure what exactly was going on between them. Yeah, good luck with that, boss. I never got it figured out.

Her phone buzzed a few times. She read the texts, but it took three messages until she sent a very short reply of her own. The buzzing stopped after that, and Tony couldn't help the perverse pleasure that got out of him.

She wasn't just monosyllabic with him, it seemed. And two letters couldn't have been a yes.

*** *** ***
He went for a run after work.

He didn't do that often because he preferred doing it in the morning and then showering at home, before work, just so he could start the day all fresh. Sometimes, though, when it was too hard to shake something, he grabbed his stuff even if it was insanely late and ran until his mind had settled down and he could go home feeling less confused, less constricted.

He ran almost up to the point of exhaustion, but even while he crept back to the Yard like a beaten puppy he knew that it hadn't worked today, that his skin still did the uncomfortable thing and itched as if it were one size too small. And yeah, Ziva-thoughts kept nipping at his heels and mocked him, too, and it wasn't too big a stretch, even for him, to realize that he didn't want things to be like this between them. But he had no idea how to make it not-this, and his head still wasn't clear enough to even attempt to figure out what this was.

He pulled off his OSU sweater with a tired sigh and dropped it to the locker room bench. His thoughts buzzed up again, nagging and chiding him, and suddenly he just wanted to close his eyes and groan and slap his own head until it all went away. And then he'd drink himself into a stupor, just for the sake of old times and for shutting down his too-noisy brain.

The skin right between his shoulder blades itched like mad, but he fought the urge to scratch it and turned towards the gym.

*** *** ***
In theory it should have surprised him that she was still here. But then again, she was the other half of this messed-up partnership, and so it almost made sense. Well, about as much sense as him running from himself for about two hours made.

He watched her back for longer than seemed prudent while she kept hammering away at the sandbag with short, precise moves. The white singlet she wore drew his gaze. It seemed too private for a public workout, and he found himself staring at the way her muscles jumped hard with each forceful blow. Her skin was shiny with sweat. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and he wasn't sure if the urge to run his fingertips up her neck and into the tiny, soaked curls at the nape of it was a healthy one. Most days, it would not be a good idea to touch your partner like that. At least he had enough common sense left to know that.

"If you're going to stare, at least make yourself useful," Ziva said just then, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he blinked, confused, caught.

She had stopped her blows to the leather sack and was watching him out of the corner of her eye now, her head half-turned towards him over her shoulder, but not facing him. Her hands flexed at her sides, and he watched her arm muscles bunch and relax again with the movement. No gloves, just bandages to protect her knuckles. Seemed like she needed to feel the force of the impact.

She didn't look at him when he came closer and circled her to get to the other side of the bag. He saw her swallow though when he almost brushed her shoulder, and that simple reaction, that tiny flaw in her mask of indifference made his skin tighten.

He grabbed the sides of the bag, holding it steady for her, and when she finally turned towards him, she looked him up and down, and something flickered in her eyes. It was gone as fast as it had shown, but it was there, and he had seen the way she'd looked at him, how her gaze had dropped to his bare chest, how her eyes had darkened for just a few heartbeats. His own eyes narrowed, and he watched her face so intently now that he almost forgot to lean into the sandbag when she began hitting it again.

By the second blow, all her walls had been firmly pulled back up and she concentrated on her task so hard that she seemed almost oblivious to Tony's presence. He knew that she wasn't, though.

I saw that, his mind kept cheering. I saw that look, and now I know you're not immune, and I know you feel... something.

He watched her features tighten as she clenched her jaw, and he knew that his scrutiny made her uncomfortable, but he couldn't help it. He had to keep staring at her, had to try and figure out what was going on between them, because if he didn't he'd never know if he had already screwed this one up or if there was any chance of--

He blinked in surprise when she stepped back hard suddenly, her eyes meeting his with a strange expression that he couldn't place. Something halfway between anger and genuine confusion.

"Why are you here?" she asked, panting, her cheeks flushed, and his fingers itched and made him want to reach for her and run them down her neck and push the singlet down her shoulder so he could see more of her skin.

And yeah, when her words sank in he had to admit it was a damn good question, actually. One he didn't know the right answer to yet, if there was such a thing as right in this scenario. Maybe 'sane' would work, for a start.

"I was itchy," he replied carefully, going for honesty instead, and that made Ziva snort and turn away from him.

"What are you doing here, then?" she asked and bent down to pick up her bottle of water. "You should ask your girlfriend to help with that."

He watched her shoulder muscles jump under the sweaty fabric of her shirt. She unscrewed the bottle forcefully and knocked back a big gulp of water, and he knew it was not one of the good urges, again, but he wanted to shake her now and make her look at him again. Because the longer she turned her back to him, the more of her he lost.

"She's not my girlfriend," he heard himself say. There was a note of surprise to his voice, and he wasn't entirely sure if he was still sticking to facts here or not. He had, truthfully, no idea yet what was going on with EJ. What he wanted to go on. He was always just flying by his gut, he wasn't one to analyze things to death. If it worked out, hey, nice. If it didn't, one could always tackle problems when they showed up. Or, well. Avoid them.

His words didn't have the effect he'd been going for. He saw Ziva's body tense up even more while she clenched the bottle in her hands, twisting the cap almost violently. "Of course," she said then, and Tony found himself frowning at the strange calmness of her voice that stood in stark contrast to her body language. "You just fuck them. I forgot."

His pulse jumped to a harsh, angry beat instantly. Her words rubbed his skin raw as if she had gone back to hitting things, only this time she hadn't aimed for the sandbag.

Ziva didn't do this. She was never blunt like this, never this rude. And never this open.

"You kiss your boyfriend with that mouth?" he pressed out angrily, because it shouldn't matter, really, it should be no skin off his itchy back. But it did, of course, because in this freaky corner of the universe it mattered what she thought of him, after all.

Her breathing was flat and fast suddenly, and she did the same thing she had done before, turned her head just enough so she could watch him out of the corner of her eye.

"He's not my boyfriend," she said, and yes, she had said this so often now that he should start believing her, but somehow he still couldn't. Because there was no way in hell that could be true. What kind of idiot would be content to just be friends with a woman like her, to never lay a hand on her?

He watched her profile, and her features were still so eerily calm that he felt his eyes narrow and annoyance rise in his gut. Annoyance that she had decided brushing him off like that was a good idea. Annoyance that she still wanted to pretend there was nothing going on, even if he wasn't quite sure if it meant between them or between her and her non-boyfriend. And, yes, annoyance that she wanted to be a bitch about this, too.

"Right," he pressed out, and he knew it was childish and destructive before he even opened his mouth, but he couldn't keep the words from tumbling out. "He's still alive."

At first glance he didn't get much of a reaction. Just a tiny shudder ran through her, and he saw her nostrils flare while she tried to keep her breath from hitching. Then she turned, suddenly, but she didn't look at him, just moved past him in long strides.

Her face didn't tell him anything. Her expression was completely blank now, and that was how he knew that he had just hurt her badly. And fuck, yes, he instantly wanted to apologize, wanted to make it up to her. Make her look at him again, and then maybe start this whole conversation all over.

"Ziva," he said, reaching out to grab her arm, and part of him expected her to just shrug his hand off, or maybe give him some angry words or even throw her water bottle at him.

He did not expect the explosion of movement the moment his fingers touched her skin. Before he knew what was going on she had whirled around and hit him hard in the chest with the heel of her hand. He gasped for air as both the impact of her hand and his back hitting the wall knocked the breath out of him, and he wanted to do something to stop this, but he had no idea what to do with a Ziva who was so angry that she lost it, physically, except ride it out. It had worked that way before, at least.

Her hand came up to his throat, not choking him yet, just keeping him in place and pressing down, and Tony stared at her with wide eyes while hers narrowed. Jesus, she was half his size, but she kept him down with nothing more than a simple touch.

Well. At least it had seemed simple. But that had been before she'd slammed him into a wall and his fucked-up brain had decided that this may have been what he'd needed from her the whole time.

"What do you want from me?" she hissed into his face, and his skin itcheditcheditched under the thumb she pressed to the base of his throat. His pulse jumped so hard suddenly that a shudder ran through him, and yes, he knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help it, he had to get closer, had to lean into her and down to her.

That turned out to be the thing that got a real emotion out of her after all, even though he wasn't quite sure yet what he saw in her eyes as she backed away from him. He followed her movement, though, grabbing her, and whatever game they were playing here, it had turned into some perverted kind of tango by the time he spun her around and slammed her hard into the same wall in return. And yeah, he should have felt bad about this, because dammit, one just didn't do this to women, but she was Ziva, after all, and she had started this. And since words had never worked too well between them, maybe this would.

Her left hand came up to his chest, clenching on his flesh, and while her lips parted and she tried to get some air back into her lungs, he couldn't help but crowd her even more, lean into her until he could have kissed her easily. And not too long ago that would have meant he was willing to risk a slow and agonizing death.

But not this time, apparently.

Because, yes, her eyes were wide and shocked now, but there was also something else simmering in them, some glimpse of what he had seen earlier, when she had stared at his chest and his mouth and the hands that held the sandbag for her. Something that wasn't as carefully neutral as the face she had shown him all day. Something that reacted to him after all. And for some purely selfish reasons he suddenly felt greedy for that tiny piece of her that had slipped through her tight control and back into his grasp. The piece of her that, despite everything, still wanted him.

"You're jealous," he breathed into her face, and his heart suddenly hammered against her palm because his gut just knew he was right. His skin tightened as her gaze dropped to his mouth and something flashed across her face, dulling her eyes until he was sure she would push him away any second now.

He expected her to deny the accusation, just like he always did, just like they had never acknowledged the fucked-up spark that was between them, and so he merely stared at her, stunned and confused and openmouthed, when she eventually took a slow breath and said, "That is no longer your business."

And that was when he realized that she had stopped playing their usual game. That somehow, at some point, she had made up her mind and changed around the rules and hadn't bothered to tell him about it, and as a result she was looking at him all distant, with just the barest hint of emotion hidden behind the shadows in her eyes.

Her grip tightened on him in clear warning when he leaned into her again, and he slowed his approach, just enough that she wouldn't push him away. Because he just couldn't leave things like that, he had to keep pushing her now, and he needed to shake her until she gave him more than just that quiet sadness. Because he couldn't take that. He couldn't stand spending his days with her and not-her at the same time. And because he really, really needed a reaction out of her now. Something genuine. Something that reminded him why he was doing this, all of this, in the first place.

His hand, settled on her hip, pressed down on her flesh, and his thumb dug into the soft, inner curve that tempted him to slide his hand under the waistband of her sweats, or maybe grab her ass and drag her closer. Her pulse sped up, reacting to him so easily, and he could see her heartbeat pound, could see it in the vein in her throat, and he had no idea how it happened, really, but suddenly he found that he was pressed up against her and slid his thigh against hers, and that was a rush of madness that could get him kicked so hard he'd never have kids. But by now he didn't care all that much, he just needed to get her to react, needed to shake her up and get her old self back. The one that looked at him like she really wanted him to cross that line.

The sharp itch of a blade low against his throat reminded him that she had another hand, one that wasn't trapped against his chest, and for a moment he froze, staring at her with wide eyes, and his own pulse was going through the roof for all the wrong reasons.

Something swirled in her eyes, though, and he couldn't help himself and raised his left hand to press it flat against the wall beside her head, supporting his own weight while he tried to ignore the knife and bent his head down.

"Don't," she warned him, and for a heartbeat he stilled against her, thinking. And while he stared at her, at her mouth and her neck, while he imagined sucking on that neck and biting down on it, Ziva watched his face, and whatever she saw there, it seemed to be enough of a trigger for her that her body betrayed her and erupted in sudden heat.

He felt it, of course, felt her reaction because he was so close to her now, and that did strange and dangerous things to his mind. His heart tried to jump out of his chest with every beat, and when he stared at her mouth, her tempting lips, he found that he really didn't give a damn. That he almost wanted to feel the bite of her blade. Needed to feel it, even, because maybe it would bring him back to feeling right, too. To feeling anything at all. Anything that wasn't totally screwed up.

She didn't move when he closed the last of the distance between them. She neither drew her hand back nor pressed the knife into him more insistently. And yet, he felt his skin give at one point, felt the sharp sting of steel and the slow trickle of blood on his skin that followed it. Felt some of his itchiness seep out with it, because it was just a few drops, but it was... enough.

His muscles trembled with the effort it took to keep his full weight from crashing into her because he knew she wouldn't retreat and she wouldn't push him away, she'd leave all the pushing and pulling to him. And so he was once more stuck at the point where he was confused, and distracted, and not sure what to do now, except stare into her eyes and lean into her and will her to change the rules yet again.

She blinked, eventually, and while she slowly lowered the hand that held the knife, her eyes first dropped to his neck and then started flicking all over the place until she turned her head to the side and swallowed hard. "What do you want from me?" she repeated quietly.

And he still had no idea what to say to that, really.

"I'm not sure," he murmured against her cheek, and it shocked him to find that it would be so easy to kiss her now. That he was close enough to run his mouth down her neck if he just leaned into her a little more. And that she hadn't stopped him yet.

Then he caught the sad little smile that ghosted over her face, and he couldn't help his own frown, couldn't help the urge rising again to shake her and make her say things so he wouldn't have to.

"You never were," she said eventually, and when she turned her head back to him, her lips were close enough to brush his, and that made his body jump to sharp, painful attention. Because yes, she was still able to get a reaction out of him, anytime. Just like that.

"Ziva," he pressed out, and she cocked her head and stared at his neck again as if something had just caught her attention.

"You're bleeding," she stated what should have been obvious, and he felt his muscles begin to shake because he really had to keep himself from crashing into her now, from forcing things, from going way past the boundaries of the game they had once started. The one they weren't playing any longer.

But her hand was so hot against his chest, scorching him while he contemplated a lame joke about kissing it to make it better, and he had no idea what to do now. What buttons to push. How to stay like this and yet, not.

And then Ziva suddenly leaned forward because she'd read his goddamn mind again, and oh dear god, that was her tongue on his skin, licking, drawing a slow line up his chest and to his neck in a way that made him gasp and left him half hard in a flash. He knew that he should feel sick and disgusted now, possibly angry at himself for letting things get out of hand like this, but just then she closed her mouth over the cut they had made and sucked on his flesh, and his body shook against hers as he fell into her with a low moan.

Her hand clenched on his hip as she dug her teeth into his flesh suddenly and made him jerk against her hard. His thigh slid between hers out of its own accord, and he felt her take in a deep breath, felt her tense against him, ready to draw back and bolt on him because now she realized what she was doing, and he couldn't let that happen, couldn't let her stop now. His hand came up to the back of her neck, keeping her right where she was and making her suck him that much harder until his body strummed with the pain-pleasure of it. He gasped into her neck by the time she dug her teeth into his flesh, and he scrambled to get his hands under her shirt and the fabric to ride up so he could feel her skin against his own.

She didn't stop him. Didn't even tell him to stop. She tore his mouth from his neck instead and pressed out a curse when he closed his hands around her breasts and shuddered against him, and that was it, that was what he'd been looking for the whole time. That was her, unraveling, finally.

Her blade grazed his side, and part of him really wanted to worry about it, but the way she threw her head back now and pressed her eyes shut made thinking too hard for him, and so he just went with his gut again and pressed his lips to hers and shoved his tongue into her mouth.

She moaned into his mouth when he jerked his hips against her hard, pressing into her, letting her feel how hard he was, and suddenly he found himself drowning in her heat. Her skin was getting all sweaty again, and her pants were soaked by now, not just from sweat. Oh, yeah, he could feel her reaction, could feel her heat erupt all around him, against him, and that and the sharp copper tang of his own blood in her mouth made his head spin and his mind reel, and no, this wasn't right, not at all. But the knife clattered to the ground just then, and her hand came up to dig into his hair, and her tongue chased his while she breathed his blood, his life, back into him.

His skin tightened again, and he needed more of this, needed to feel her, needed to keep her right where she was now, so out of it and lost in sensation. She gasped again, and he felt the sharp bite of her nails in his neck when he slid his hand into her pants and touched her. Her mouth suddenly got desperate on his, as if he had flipped a switch, and god, this was it, this was really her, all wet on his fingertips, her heat scorching him, her body straining to get closer to his, and oh yes, fuck, this had turned into all kinds of hot... and wrong. Maybe.

She tore her mouth from his, her head falling back against the wall. Her body shuddered hard, and Tony stared at her in amazement, watching her face while he stroked her, slowly.

He could feel the strength of her reaction, could feel her pulsing against his fingertips and god, he wanted her so bad right now that he couldn't think straight, that he just wanted to rip down her pants and shove into her, and he couldn't do that, of course, not with Ziva, she wouldn't--

He swallowed hard and forced the question out because it needed to be asked. "You want me to--"

"Yes," she interrupted him, her eyes still closed, her body arching, tense, and he really wanted to wait for more of an approval, wanted to make sure, but in the end he pushed two fingers into her before the simple word had stopped ringing in his ears. She pressed out a strained groan, and he twisted his fingers inside her, rubbing his palm against her while he pushed deeper. She jerked hard against him, her hands clenching on his hip and his neck, urging him on wordlessly to give her more.

And he did as she asked, of course. He watched her intently, watched her face as he got her off, and yeah, there was no doubt he was doing just that. This was it, this was so far from controlled, from safe and sound. This was what was underneath her skin, just that, the raw stuff she never let him see. The stuff he needed so desperately.

It didn't take long until he felt her tense in that telltale way, and her body tightened around his fingers as he curled them inside her. She didn't cry out or groan. She barely made a sound, but he saw her bite her lip hard, and that was when he felt her come, felt her heat rise until she was burning up around him, and god, he really had no idea how this had happened.

His own body screamed at him, and he couldn't remember the last time he had felt so hard and hungry, almost starving. But he couldn't do anything about it right now. It seemed so much more important to watch her face, maybe because he knew her. He knew that there would be a change in her soon, and he needed to be prepared for the moment her walls would come crashing down again and slam him out. He didn't dare to move, and it was almost painful to keep his body this immobile because he still wanted to fuck her senseless and see that face she had just shown him over and over again.

His left hand, curled around the back of her neck by now, betrayed him, though, and moved out of its own accord. His thumb brushed along her temple tentatively, barely there, just enough of a sensation to make her open her eyes and turn her head until her nose touched his. And that was when he realized that he had already missed the moment. That her walls had already been rebuilt, brick by brick, while he'd still been busy trying to figure out what would happen now. He wasn't sure how this was possible -- to be so close to someone, physically, that he could feel her thundering pulse in his fingertips and still have all the distance in the world between them.

He rubbed his nose along hers because he couldn't help it, and Ziva blinked, watching him warily. "I'm sorry," he murmured. Very carefully he slipped his fingers out of her and then his hand out of her pants, and the whole time she just watched him quietly, the slightest frown forming on her face as if she tried to make up her mind about something puzzling. She didn't move, didn't even pull her shirt back down, and that looked vaguely obscene with her all sweaty and her body so much more relaxed than her head was.

It took some effort to step away from her, and his body yelled at him angrily for the mere thought. Ziva breathed out slowly when he moved, and her eyes fluttered halfway shut. Then she simply said, "I'm not." He had to admit later that this shocked him much more than what had actually happened between them.

She sighed when she saw his expression, and for a second she looked at him as if she wanted to shake her head in frustration. Then she pushed herself off the wall instead and followed his step when he backed up instinctively. Her palm, unexpected and warm against his cheek, was just a fleeting touch, but it was there and it made his eyes widen because he wasn't sure he deserved that particular kind of softness.

"You need to stop punishing yourself," she murmured. The she finally reached up to pull her shirt back into place and restore the impression of normalcy. There was a streak of blood on her singlet and some more smeared around her lower lip, and Tony wanted to point that out to her. Instead, he just blinked, still searching for words while she already turned away from him and picked up her stuff. She moved a little more stiffly and there was a different set of tension to her shoulders now, but other than that she looked as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And he had no idea how he felt about that.

*** *** ***
He drove home in silence. He hadn't showered at the Yard, had just pulled his sweater back on and grabbed his gear and then made a beeline for his car, and he couldn't even explain why that felt more sane and reasonable than cleaning up there. Later, when he stood in his own bathroom and peeled off his sweater again, wincing when the fabric stuck to the cut low on his neck, it felt even more bizarre.

He stared at his own image in the bathroom mirror.

The cut wasn't that deep, really, but it had turned into an angry red reminder. There were distinct tooth marks around it and a dark shadow of bruising underneath that made it stand out even more. Yeah, she'd gotten him good there. Good thing it would be easily covered up. He'd have found it hard to explain when he couldn't even pretend to understand it himself. Not when his body still thrummed with need at the mere memory and the visible evidence of Ziva marking him like that.

He wasn't sure how long he stood like that, just staring at his mirror image. Eventually he forced himself to clean the cut so it wouldn't become infected.

He thought about showering for a moment, but then he found that washing her scent off him could wait for just a little while longer.

Chapter Text

Tony DiNozzo was, deep down in his heart, a man who was horrified by change.

Especially when things seemed to be going along just nicely, without any major bumps along the way, it was so easy to fall into the perception that everything was roses and sunshine. That things were perfectly fine instead of merely okay. That he, personally, didn't need to lift a finger to keep things nice and easy and uncomplicated. That, in fact, things were meant to stay just like they were.

Some part of him even realized every once in a while that Team Gibbs, despite its ups and downs over the years, had been the most stable thing in his life since his mother's death, which was probably why he clung to it with such a fiery passion.

There had been disturbances in his own stable little corner of the universe, of course. Kate, dying. Gibbs, leaving, Jenny, dying. Him, transferred to a fucking boat. Ziva, dying for a little while. (He still wasn't entirely sure if that or her coming back had made the greater ripples in his pond.)

Despite all that, his tiny, whacked up replacement family had remained a constant in his life for the past ten years. He didn't want that to change. He was scared shitless of the moment it would all fall apart because he knew that time would come eventually.

That clingy part of him dreaded the moment the elevator doors would slide open. Because it meant he'd have to face at least some changes in his sea of stability. Because after last night, things would not just slide back into place and go on as they always had. Because he had crossed a dozen lines last night, and Ziva had let him do it. And change was bound to follow on the heels of that, because that was how things worked in the real world after all, and the anticipation -- or rather, his inability to anticipate the direction of the change -- tightened his stomach into one motherfucker of a knot.

The scared part of him felt strangely anti-climactic when Ziva merely greeted him with a slight smile tugging at her lips and then gave him crap about his hair, treating him just like she had for the better part of the past six years. Because, he realized with a start, he had counted on some things to change now, however subtly.

And maybe, just maybe, he'd even been looking forward to it.

*** *** ***
Halfway through the day his irritation rose to a whole new level. His jokes fell flat while Ziva's soared, and Gibbs, satisfied that whatever had irked her the day before seemed dealt with now, hardly ever gave her a glance. Instead he concentrated his efforts at most intimidating death glare on Tony because apparently his Senior Field Agent couldn't keep his thoughts together for five cents and even left a few snappy comebacks for McGee to fill in.

His skin began to itch again when EJ rushed by an hour later, flashing him a brief smile that would have felt promising under other circumstances. Now, though, he wasn't sure what made him more uncomfortable -- her brilliant, open smile or Ziva's polite one when she just turned her head to nod a very calm "Good morning, Agent Barrett" across the hedge.

*** *** ***
He wasn't sure when exactly he began to rub his neck, right where he knew the cut of his partner's knife was. It made the half-forgotten sting flare up again, and soon he kept coming back to the cut because it was such a distinct reminder that, in fact, last night had really happened. Because Ziva sure as hell never gave any indication that it had.

He kept running his fingertips along his collarbone, following the line of the cut under his shirt, pressing down just enough so it was this side of painful. He was acutely aware of the fact that each time he did it, Ziva watched him out of the corner of her eye.

*** *** ***
He wasn't sure later how exactly he had managed to reach the end of the day -- well, at least the work part of it. It had all turned into one big giant blur, filled with tentative glances and not-funny jokes and an itchy reminder on his neck.

By the time he grabbed his backpack and almost fled from his desk, his body was tense enough to bounce a quarter on it. His joints ached, and at one time he'd had his jaws clenched so tight that he'd been afraid of cracking a tooth. Each time he turned his head now, something snapped and cracked in his neck, and he was tempted to go for another run to get rid of the tension. But neither that nor following Ziva's earlier example and pounding the stuffing out of the sandbag down in the gym seemed like it would do him any good tonight.

*** *** ***
His fingers tapped the steering wheel nervously. He had done that for almost an hour by now while he'd tried to come up with a somewhat logical explanation why exactly he was sitting in his car, parked in front of his partner's apartment building, in the middle of the night. So far, he hadn't found one, and that didn't feel exactly reassuring from his point of view.

He turned his head and found for maybe the fifteenth time that he couldn't see her apartment from where he sat, not even if he leaned forward in his seat. He'd have to get out of the car and tilt his head back to see if her windows were dark by now. (They had to be, right? Because it was way too early in the morning to be still up, and Ziva wasn't cut like that.)

His index finger started tapping a faster rhythm, and the others followed along. Go figure.

*** *** ***
Her door opened just a notch. Just enough to show him her face and the ghost of her outline, weirdly relaxed, her eyes still mostly shut because his knocks had dragged her out of bed after all. Her hair was a wild mess, trying to escape into all directions at once, and he felt the urge to run his hands through it and tame it while she became a little more awake for him.

She blinked slowly, leaning against her door and watching him all sleep-mussed and strangely calm, as if it didn't surprise her in the least that he was standing in front of her door at three in the morning, looking like a lost puppy. And yeah, well. It probably didn't. She knew him a little.

He desperately tried to say something. Tried to force his mouth open and just spill out what had brought him here, but he didn't really know that himself, so all he could do was look at her with scare-widened eyes and swallow hard and wait for her to react, one way or the other. And he tried not to stare-stare, tried not to notice the skimpy tank top whose strap slipped down her shoulder just then, tried not to think about the clearly well-worn sweat pants and how soft the fabric would feel against his skin if he'd drag her against his body like he had done last night.

She raised a hand and slowly rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. And then she yawned and stepped to the side, opening the door to let him in.

*** *** ***
Her naked feet barely made a sound as she dragged them through her dark living room and into the kitchen, not even looking back once to see if he would follow her. She just knew he would.

She was still quiet while she flipped the light switch, and Tony flinched in advance because he expected something bright and glaring now. It surprised him that what he got instead was soft and warm, almost like candlelight. He blinked and looked at Ziva, and she pointed to one of the chairs by the kitchen table while she turned on the boiler she used to make hot water.

"No coffee for me," he said and almost jumped because even this low murmur sounded like an intrusion, crashing into the silence harshly.

"Chocolate," she replied softly, then shot him a glance. "Sit."

He watched her reach for a cupboard, and while he obeyed and pulled one of the chairs away from the table so he could sit and watch her, she filled instant chocolate powder into two mugs, quietly counting away the spoons. The strap of her tank top was still down, and watching her bare shoulder made his thoughts spin in a way that wasn't right. Couldn't be.

She turned back towards him when he wasn't ready for it yet, and he found his throat tighten when she came closer than he had thought she would, moving one knee between his legs and nudging him so he would spread them for her. His pulse jumped hard and painfully in his throat, and he desperately wanted to say something, wanted to react in a somewhat intelligent fashion.

Instead, he just obeyed, again. Spread his legs so she could step between them because that's what she wanted. Tilted his head back and looked up at her with his throat constricting until he had trouble breathing. And just then she raised a hand and unbuttoned his shirt, and his breath seeped out of him again as if her touch had broken the spell.

He swallowed hard when she pulled the fabric away and looked at the cut underneath, and he knew from the frown she was giving him that she didn't exactly like what she saw. He felt the urge to apologize, but like always he couldn't, and so he just watched her shake her head and turn towards another cupboard to take out a bigger box. When she brought it over and sat it down on the kitchen table, he couldn't help the smile.

"You keep a first aid kit in your kitchen?" he asked, vaguely amused.

Ziva though blinked at him in genuine surprise. "You don't?"

Her hands opened a tiny package, and Tony grimaced when she took out an antiseptic pad and used it to clean up the cut. Apparently his scratching and picking at it over the day hadn't done much good.

"Baby," she scoffed, her head bent down while she worked with clear, precise movement. There was a bit of blood and a little more of other liquids on the pad when she dropped it into the waste bin a few moments later, and he tried not to look at it while she cut up a bandage and taped it to his neck to cover up the cut. Her hands lingered on his skin a little longer than theoretically necessary, and he wanted her to slip them under his shirt and down his back and maybe just have her sit down on his lap so he could hold her. But that was something he couldn't really voice, so his gaze remained stuck on the curve of her naked shoulder and his pulse kept pounding away. His fingertips touched the outer side of her knee, and she blinked while he breathed in the strange mix of jasmine and antiseptic that came from her skin now.

"Why are you here, Tony?" she asked, and he laughed nervously. Her fingertips tapped the curve of his neck once more, and he turned his head to really look at her just when she stepped back and turned to the sink to wash her hands.

He remained quiet, just watched her pour hot water and stir the chocolate, and for some reason that simple thing made his throat tighten so hard that he couldn't look at her any longer. His eyes flicked to the doorway, and he blinked and tried to make out something -- anything -- in the darkness of her living room. And eventually, he did.

"You're heading out?" he asked, staring at the travel bag that was waiting beside the couch.

"In the morning," she replied quietly and gave him her back for a few more moments while she kept stirring the chocolate. He had the feeling that she did that just so she wouldn't have to face him yet.

"With Ray," he stated, and she nodded.


His stomach flip-flopped, and something not entirely healthy shot through him. Because she wasn't supposed to do that, she wasn't supposed to run off with another guy, and yeah, he knew they'd have some stuff to work out, but--

"Can you cancel?" She turned her head, blinking at him, and his mouth ran away with him some more because her expression was so genuinely surprised that he saw an opening that would still leave him covered. Mostly. "Listen, just cancel, right? I mean, it's not like you're sleeping with him, and--"

His voice trailed off when he saw her face go carefully blank all of a sudden, and that was it, the kick in the gut, the rug being pulled out from under his feet, and it left him feeling played and like an idiot. Jesus Christ.

"I thought he isn't your boyfriend," he said, his teeth suddenly grinding again.

Ziva came back to the kitchen table with their mugs and placed one in front of him carefully, avoiding his eyes for the time being. Then she pulled another chair out for herself and sat down, so close that her knee almost brushed against his.

"We are talking about two different things here, Tony," she said quietly, choosing her phrasing very carefully now. "You of all people should know that."

There was an ugly lump in his throat while he watched her face, eyes lowered and staring into her mug, lips tightly pressed together. Her hair was still all over the place, and it felt so fucked up, but he was torn between brushing it out of her face gently and grabbing her shoulders to shake her hard. He took a deep breath.

"What is he for you, Ziva?"

"He is... a friend," she replied after what seemed like an eternity. Her index finger ran along the rim of her mug, dipping into the cocoa. "He is a good man."

"I didn't know you had the habit of sleeping with your friends." And goddammit, yes, that was crossing yet another line, but he couldn't help it, the words seemed to force themselves out. His mouth had always run away with him in moments like these. "I would have knocked years ago."

She blinked, her eyes fixed on her chocolate, and once again he just wanted to shake her until she started spilling the beans. But just when his skin itched so bad that he wanted to tear off the stupid bandage, she turned her head and met his gaze squarely, her face so set that Tony wanted to duck at the slowly swirling anger he saw underneath the outward calmness.

"He is the only man I have had sex with since I came... became an NCIS agent," she said, and he caught the slight pause, the hint of a stumble there, caught it and understood, much more than he wanted to understand suddenly. And god, yes, he was an idiot sometimes.

Then she half-grimaced and gave him an apologetic smile. "Well, he was, until very recently."

"Why?" he asked, and she flinched because what he really meant and just couldn't get over his fucking lips was 'Why him?', of course. Maybe even 'Why him and not me?'.

She cocked her head at him and watched him for a moment, and he got the impression that she was actually thinking hard about her reply. "He is... safe," she said eventually, giving him a slight shrug, and even though that was obviously meant to explain things, it didn't. It just made him frown until Ziva sighed and rubbed her eyes.

"He's a good man, Tony," she said quietly, and he was surprised by how tired he was of hearing this. "He... gets me. But he doesn't know me. And that helps. With him, it does not matter if--"

She broke off hard as if she'd just bitten her tongue and stared down at her mug again, a frown drawing her brows together. And even though he wasn't sure what exactly she had wanted to say, he sort of got it. With Ray, the almost-stranger, it really didn't matter all that much if she had a flashback or freaked out and pulled back in the middle of things. Because he would never know all the whys and hows.

"What, you never put a gun to his chest?" he asked, and this time he flinched because yes, there was a teasing lilt to his question, but it was still the worst possible joke he could have come up with.

And yet, she suddenly smiled and glanced at him sideways. Go figure.

"I never put a gun to his chest," she confirmed, the corners of her mouth twitching. "But there's time."

He returned the half-smile while he tried to breathe, and just because he had no idea what else to do now, he finally raised his mug and took a sip of his chocolate (which turned out to be pretty much like liquid candy on his tongue). Ziva, though, was still busy watching him quietly, and suddenly he was acutely aware of the fact that his shirt was still unbuttoned and she was staring at his chest again.

"When I sat in that cell in Somalia," she suddenly said, and he sat down the mug hard and watched her face, "I knew I would never see any of you again. And I had to accept that fact." She swallowed suddenly, blinking fast. He couldn't quite remember the last time he had seen her fight for composure so hard, and part of him wanted to tell her to just stop, to keep this stuff bottled up where it belonged and not pick at the scabs if that worked better for her. But just like him, she wasn't quite cut out for that once things were set into motion, once the memory had started itching. "A part of me thought that dying without seeing your face again would have been very... apt."

He shrugged uncomfortably, and he really didn't want to reply because his own memories on that subject weren't too nice, but his tongue betrayed him and his words stumbled out before he could censor them. "Yeah, well, it was a close call."

"Indeed," she chuckled, her face relaxing gradually. Then she turned her head and saw his expression, his suddenly wide eyes at what he had just let slip, and she blinked slowly, putting together the pieces and coming up with a whole. "Wait. You are not talking about me."

Panic rose hard and fast in him, and he hastily tried to slam the door shut that had fallen open by accident. But it was too late, and he saw her eyes widen when she caught something in his face.

"'course I am, what else?" he pressed out and looked down, avoiding her gaze now because it made his head spin and his heart race and he wasn't really ready to go down that route with her yet.

Ziva, though, couldn't let go again, and so she leaned towards him, her hand touching his and her fingers sneaking across his palm. He couldn't help staring at that. Because she spoke now, and her voice was angry, impatient, and he just knew there was a frown on her face and she was leaning into him further, willing him to look at her again.

"Tony, just this once--"

"I almost blew my head off one night," he pressed out, interrupting her. It just wasn't the night for this, and he wasn't cut out to take her interrogation.

He heard her take in a sharp breath at that, and he turned his head and met her eyes again because even though he could imagine her expression, he still had to see her face. "It's not something I'm proud of, okay?" The words came out a little more heatedly than he had planned, and yeah, he suddenly felt all defensive because he was pretty sure how Ziva would take this particular kind of weakness.

Except that she didn't. She just watched him with her eyes suddenly very wide and weirdly shiny, and she was so close, simply too close, with her hand touching his and her face so open, and he wanted to kiss her so much right now that the urge hurt almost physically.

He cleared his throat and looked away before he could do something stupid, like follow through on his urge. "Wasn't just about you, sweetcheeks," he murmured, and he knew that she was still looking at him, all shocked and quiet and so intensely focused that it made his skin crawl. "I was stone drunk and things just caught up, you know? Like, Jenny, or Paula, or..." His voice trailed off because these were his words, yes, but they felt all wrong. They were just a part of the truth, one piece of the puzzle. He blinked and turned his head again, facing her with a sigh. "Yeah, well. I guess that night it was all about you."

Her fingers curled around his hand slowly, and he watched her face go soft all of a sudden. There was a weird compassion shining in her eyes, and it made an equally strange heat rise in his own belly because he had never really seen her look at him like that before. His throat was suddenly tight again when she met his eyes for the briefest moment and then looked down again, leaning back in her chair. He almost wondered if his perception had played tricks on him, but then she glanced back at him, and he couldn't help the smile now.

"I saw that," he murmured and leaned towards her, searching her face, and yes, holy crap, Ziva David could blush, after all. And when she blushed, she did it hard and fast.

He grinned at her then, and when she moved to take her hand from his, he turned up his palm and grabbed her fingers. She froze, careful not to look at him. But when he tugged at her hand to drag her closer again, she gave in easily.

*** *** ***
Her mouth was so soft, so relaxed, unlike the other times he had kissed her, and the sudden, unexpected gentleness made his throat tighten once more. Her bed was warm and unmade, of course, and it smelled like jasmine, just like she did. And yes, there was a certain urgency to these playful kisses, but he still knew that he could spend all day like that, stripped down to his boxers and spread out across her bed, and have Ziva, warm and delicious and naked, all over him.

She mouthed a question at one point, and he was so distracted by the way her skin felt against his chest, so hot and smooth, that he didn't even hear what she said at first. But then she laughed and leaned to the side, hand scrambling to reach the nightstand. While she pulled the drawer open, he ran his tongue up her side and licked her breast, and she made that soft sound again, the one that was so close to the noise she made when someone tackled her and threw her to the ground. He pressed his face into her skin, and for a moment she stilled in his arms, very aware of his mouth against her heartbeat. Her pulse was a harsh, fast drum solo, in stark contrast to the lazy way she had moved in his arms up until now. For a heartbeat he wondered if this was the moment where she would freak out and pull away because it was too much after all. Then she settled back on his lap, and he arched into her with a groan because he suddenly felt too much of her, too much to keep him in this lazy state of just running his hands all over her and kissing her and making out with her until the sun came up again.

She shuddered in his arms, and yeah, that was her moving against his cock now, teasing him because the damn boxers were thin and didn't keep her heat from him, and god, if she kept doing that he would embarrass himself soon.

"Ziva," he groaned, and while he ran his hands down her sides and held her hips still, she laughed softly and tore open the small foil package she'd taken from the nightstand.

And just like that, his mind chilled and his perception shifted, and he grabbed her wrist and held her hand away from his body, staring at her in sudden panic.

Ziva blinked and stared down at his hand for a moment, then met his eyes. "What?" she asked, and he wanted to answer her, wanted to spell it out for her, but he couldn't because his throat had tightened up to the point where he had trouble breathing. She cocked her head at him curiously, watching him. "I'm not doing this without one."

He tried, he really tried to tell her this wasn't it, that he wasn't one of the guys who used every available white lie to get out of wearing a condom, that he didn't mind them all that much. He tried, but everything that ran through his head was the constant reminder that this simple act would finally change things around irrevocably, making all of this real, and yeah, it would turn it into something tangible to deal with. The panic choked him hard, and he lacked the words to express it properly, so he kept staring at her with widening eyes until hers narrowed and she leaned forward and put her palm to his cheek.

A shudder ran through him at the touch, and when she murmured his name softly he grabbed her face and pulled her close and then kissed her again until she was all breathless and distracted and forgot her own words.

"Do it," he pressed out before he would lose his nerve again, and a soft shudder ran through her at his rough voice against her cheek.

It took her a moment to react, and it gave him a rush to see her like this, all unfocused and horny and not thinking all that straight. And then her hands ran down his body and peeled him out of his boxers, and yeah, that was her returning the favor, that was sparks behind his eyelids and her hands stroking him slowly until he just moaned and his muscles shook hard.

He never let go of her from the moment she rolled the condom down, and he was painfully aware that at one point he made an embarrassing sound, almost a whimper, deep in his throat -- when she kissed him hard, distracting him from the sheer intensity that was her sliding down on him, taking him inside her. He held his breath until she began to move, shuddering softly when his hips jerked up to meet hers. His hands roamed over her face and her neck, and sometimes he held her hair back and out of her face, but most of the time he just clung to her while she rode him, very slowly, very deliberately. His eyes never left her face.

*** *** ***
He must have dozed off at one point because suddenly he found himself alone in her bed and the first sunlight was already streaming through the windows. He blinked, his mind all tangled, and that was strangely the same moment Ziva came back into the bedroom, properly dressed and her hair neatly pulled back in a tight ponytail. Her smile was warm, but guarded, and he watched her in growing confusion while she took a couple of shirts out of a drawer.

"You're still going to meet him," he said when realization hit him, and Ziva's hands stilled for a moment. Then she nodded.

He sat up hard, and his head spun suddenly as if he'd been drinking. And yeah, he knew it was spiteful, but once again he couldn't keep the words from spilling over his traitorous lips. "You're gonna sleep with him, too?"

She watched him quietly for a few seconds, and her blank expression made him nervous and itchy again. It made him want to shake her until she came to her senses.

"Have you decided to make this your business again then?" she asked him eventually, carefully sticking to her side of the room, and he hated to see her so distant, so not with him, so on her own. But as usual he had no idea how to make this stop, and his mouth opened and closed again without a sound coming out because he still couldn't voice what was in his head. Because, basically, he still had no idea what was tumbling around there, and he still felt just as lost.

And that was when Ziva sighed and came over to the bed, sitting down beside him, the hand that wasn't holding the shirts touching his, with just her finger brushing his. Something flickered across her face, and he found himself frowning and staring at her hard again.

"You think this was a mistake," he said, and it was more of an accusation than an actual question.

Ziva blinked and turned her head, and there was that damn distance again that meant she had all her walls firmly in place and didn't intend to let him through any time soon.

"I can answer that question once you tell me what you want to get out of... this," she said quietly. "Because I am not sure if you just want me as long as I am with somebody else."

And there was that damn panic rising again, choking him up and chaining him down until his eyes were wide and he found that he had turned his hand to grab hers on the bed. He drew a shuddering breath, and yeah, he wanted to answer her, but he had to force the air into his lungs, and he just couldn't, couldn’t do it, not while it was all so fresh and he was more confused than he had ever been and he had no clue what he wanted himself, except that Ziva was involved in it somehow.

"Can't you just-- you know..." he blurted out and vaguely waved the hand that wasn't clutching hers. "Do what you usually do?"

She smiled, and then she brushed her thumb across the back of his hand out of reflex. "And what is it that I usually do?"

"You know. You just look at me... and get me." And then you tell me what to do.

But this time things weren't like that, and he knew that this time she couldn't tell him what to do, he had to figure that out on his own for once, so of course she tilted her head and said quietly, "I think you need to... 'get' yourself first, Tony."

The urge to shake her grew overwhelming for a moment. Or maybe he'd just drag her back to bed and keep her busy until she had all but forgotten about Ray. He did neither of these things, because for a tiny, horrifying moment he wasn't quite sure if she might be right. If he maybe just wanted her when he couldn't have her.

"What do you want?" he blurted out, and that surprised her so much that she blinked and fell very still again.

"I want," she answered eventually, and there was a certain surprise coloring her voice, "something that isn't a memory two days from now."

The stabbing ache rose in his chest again, and he watched her quietly, torn between stability and change, status quo and progress.

And he hated the fact that she was right about one thing -- that he couldn't even make a decision that was supposed to be a no-brainer.

Chapter Text

They never talked about it, of course. It was one of their weirder rituals: experience stuff together, but not really share it.

Almost six years as partners had established their routine of never tackling issues outright and addressing them properly and maybe, maybe contain some of the damage before it occurred.

Granted, that pattern hadn't worked too well for them before (at least as far as damage containment was concerned). But after such a long time, it was hard to break out of their familiar dance, so they fell back into their old ways of willful ignorance and not-communication all too easily, and before they had really noticed it, weeks had gone by and the feel of her skin against his seemed like something dragged out of a heated dream.

Strangely, this time they didn't even skirt around the topic's edges like they usually did, covering the real issue in barbs and snide remarks and glaring looks. This time, it simply wasn't there to discuss.

It wasn't even a conscious decision -- or any kind of decision at all, for that matter. They just found themselves both at the same place they had been at before any of the really confusing things had happened.

At least on the outside.

*** *** ***
It felt weird when she sidestepped and made a dance move again by asking him about his libido.

Or perhaps the weirder thing was that she was right: he had been satisfied lately. And he hadn't even noticed it himself before she had pointed it out.

He tried to shrug it off and not think too closely about it. Because if he did, he would find it strange that he hadn't slept with anyone since he'd been with her.

*** *** ***
Part of him even tried to think about it. Tried to grasp the core of this puzzle and lay the pieces out in front of him to see what picture it made. But his mind skipped and skittered all over the place, flouncing, straying, only snapping back to attention sharply whenever the case or Gibbs required it. It was the old avoidance game, only played with himself this time. His regular problems with reality and acceptance left him in a weird state, thinking furiously without really getting anywhere, and in the end he began to wonder about this more than about the thing at hand.

It felt even more bizarre to have his restless mind come to a screeching halt when Ziva asked a very simple question: "Have you seen Agent Barrett?"

*** *** ***
The question left his spider sense tingling in the weirdest way. It also snapped his focus back so hard that he felt like a dog who had caught a whiff of the trail in a place he hadn't expected it at all. Because the question was certainly simple, but the connotations it carried weren't. Because she had just crossed their invisible line of non-talk and non-dealing and pronounced it her interest after all.

She held her chin up high and narrowed her eyes at him when he only gave her ambiguity in return, just to test the waters and her involvement here. And yes, there was something in her eyes now, something that hadn't been there before. Something that screamed out loud that she was bothered by the thought of him and another woman after all.

A chip out of her great wall of China. A dent in her armor. And he had seen it before she even noticed it herself.

"I should stop this," he said, and the grin that wanted to spread on his face was wide and obnoxious and ready to eat the world.

Her eyes narrowed even more, and he fought the urge to grab her and kiss her hard until she couldn't frown any longer, until she'd be so breathless that she wouldn't even care if he read her Gibbs's mail as a bedtime story.

But doing that, as tempting as it sounded, would have also meant giving up the tiny bit of ground he had just gotten back under his feet. And it felt too good to no longer be the free-floating one in this relationship. There was no way he'd give that up again just because she pursed her lips at him.

*** *** ***
It got him back to thinking, strangely -- not about him, but about Ziva. And in the end, he came up with a simple solution to this particular puzzle, one that left him in a good enough mood to be insufferable for the rest of the day.

In his glee about the fact that Ziva David was not yet ready to let him go he didn't even bother to wonder what all of this said about him.

*** *** ***
He rode the new dynamic for all it was worth, and he now that he knew what to look for, he could see all too easily how it got under her skin in just the right way. Strangely, Ziva still didn't see it herself. Not on that day, at least.
*** *** ***
He didn't plan on sharing the elevator down with her. He also didn't avoid ending up next to her while she waited for the cabin, and when she glanced at him sideways with a curious expression flashing across her face, he smiled at her and wondered how this would play out, now that he was armed with his new and shiny knowledge of one Probationary Agent Ziva David.

She stared at him openly by the time he hummed something tuneless under his breath, and he knew that she wasn't willing to share yet what was going on in her head. Her reflection in the elevator doors told him as much, and so he kept his own mouth shut and hummed some more until the beep of his cell phone interrupted the silent wait.

It was a text message from an old friend, asking if Tony would join him for a drink, and he would have just texted no in return and forgotten all about it if he hadn't caught Ziva's glance while she brushed past him into the cabin. Here it was: the exact moment where this evening was about to switch direction and turn interesting.

*** *** ***
She lasted about three seconds after he had given his phone an extra-affectionate smile, just for the sake of appearances.

"Agent Barrett needing your services?" she asked slowly, and sarcasm dripped from her lips while she stared at his back and watched him send his reply.

He felt his lips twitch with the urge to turn and grin at her. Instead, he just watched her pick her fingernails in the elevator doors. "Why would it be from her?" he returned, putting just the right amount of fake innocence into his voice to make her roll her eyes.

"Just answer the question, Tony."

"Ha. You haven't spilled the beans about your Ray all year, so why should I give out information about... a fellow agent?" He watched her reflection react to his words. Watched her eyes narrow and her forehead crease into a frown she probably wasn't even aware of.

"So there is something similar going on with her?"

"Don't put words into my mouth," he replied calmly, still not turning towards her. "I just won't answer your questions as long as you don't answer mine."

She pushed herself off the wall and came a step closer while he hummed a few more notes. "The difference here is," she said slowly, carefully keeping her tone neutral now, "you never asked any questions, Tony. You just mocked my friend and my relationship with him at every opportunity. I, on the other hand, have asked you very straightforward, very simple questions. And yet, you refuse to answer them."

He leaned forward and flipped the emergency halt switch of the elevator, just before they reached the parking deck, and that made her jump and look all caught and fidgety.

"Bullshit," he said and turned to face her, and it was strange to see her cheeks pale and her eyes widen.


"You heard me, Ziva," he shot back and moved towards her to meet her in the middle of the cabin. Her eyes narrowed again, suspicion rising, and she kept her gaze on him the whole time, but she still moved to the side, almost dodging him. "What's it to you? Why are you so obsessed with this?"

He had to admit, it felt good when they ended up circling each other slowly, with careful steps placed to the side as if each wrong one would touch a land mine. And maybe it would, who knew. But for now, it made his blood run faster and turned his mind on better than a good case file.

"I merely wish to know what to expect here," she replied just as carefully as her movements were, and her eyes narrowed even more when the next half-circle moved him a few inches closer and into her face.

"Liar," he muttered.

Her frown deepened, but her next step still brought her even closer. "I'm not the one evading simple questions," she said, her voice low and almost dangerous.

"No, you just ignore them," he shot back, because this time, he didn't buy the act anymore. He had seen behind this particular mask of hers.

He broke their slow circling and moved to the other side, and Ziva noticed too late that this left her with no escape route and she had to move backwards again if she didn't want to end up flat against his chest.

She tensed visible when her back hit the elevator wall and Tony closed in on her, the lazy grin on his face widening even more when he noticed how her gaze dropped to his mouth for the fraction of a heartbeat. That one look, more than enough of an answer, really, tore through him and his resolutions and left his body all anticipatory and interested, as if she had just snapped her fingers. As if the past few weeks of radio silence between them had never happened and he had never left her bed.

She let her head fall back against the wall, and he leaned into her and brought his hands up to rest beside her head, trapping her, watching her face carefully while the mood in the tiny cabin shifted and morphed into something dangerous and prickly, something that was full of potential and made his skin itch all over. And god, yes, he suddenly wanted to fuck her so badly, up against that shiny elevator wall, until she screamed for him. But this wasn't what the moment was about, even though the sudden fire in her eyes told him it could end there easily. With a mere snap of his fingers.

He tried to ignore the low throbbing that spread through his body and made him strum with anticipation. The ghost of her taste was on his tongue suddenly, and yes, he saw her eyes widen minutely when she recognized the shift in his expression for what it was. Her breathing quickened, and the tell-tale pulse in her throat was back. He remembered sucking it. Remembered how he had thought that her body was so much more expressive than her words.

"Ziva," he said, and she jumped as if the sound of her name on his lips was something unexpected. But she still met his gaze squarely, stubbornly, and even while he had her trapped like this, she raised her chin at him defiantly.

"You know what?" he asked. He leaned closer to her, hands flat against the wall on both sides of her head, and for a moment having him in her face like that made her hesitant and unsure and a bit like a deer caught in the headlights. "You do your puzzle from the inside, and you think that gives you a crisp, clear view of what you can expect. But the truth is, it's the edges that show you the real dimensions of what it's going to be, and I for one like to know the grand scale of things before I start piecing together the details."

She stared at him quietly for so long that at one point his eyes narrowed in stubborn resistance. He would not be the one who broke out of this pissing contest, and he didn't care if it would take all night.

Eventually, though, she raised her chin a little higher. "So how big a thing is this?" she asked, and he really had no idea what exactly she was asking about -- him and her, him and EJ, her and Ray. And from what he saw in her eyes, she wasn't really sure either.

Her palms were flat against the metal wall now, too, as if she were bracing herself against some kind of impact, and her lips twitched while she stared at him, her eyes wide. But she didn't move when he closed the last of the distance between them. Didn't raise her hands to push him away. Didn't tell him to stop, even when his body almost touched hers and he had to fight the urge to press her into the cold metal wall.

He tilted his head and leaned into her until his lips brushed her cheek, and he saw how her skin tightened under his breath while she remained perfectly still, almost frozen stiff. He could see the tiny hairs at the base of her neck rise, and it was so very, very tempting to press his mouth to her jasmine skin and trace a path down her neck. Maybe because he knew by now what kind of gasp she would make if he did that. How her body would flow into his so easily. How--

He breathed out slowly and watched how the warm air against her neck made her shudder involuntarily. His voice was a mere whisper, barely more than the sigh he had just breathed against her skin.

"I'm not the only one who needs to make up his mind here, Ziva."

Another shiver ran through her body, and he knew that he almost had her now, that she was so close to giving in it must almost feel like physical pain to her. He still pulled back just when she turned her head to look at him, and her lips were so close that for a moment a kiss seemed inevitable. His face was carefully blank as he took a step back and then turned to flip the emergency switch once more.

His pulse pounded in his throat, and it was hard, but he didn't even meet the confused stare of her reflection now, he just kept humming under his breath while he waited for the doors to slide open.

Don't look back now, DiNozzo.

It was hard to listen to his own advice. It was even harder to walk away from her. To put one foot in front of the other and leave her half turned on and with her thoughts whirling as much as his own. And god, yes, it was hard to know that she was still standing there and staring at his back and probably wondering what had gotten into him.

He was painfully tense by the time he reached his car, and he flexed his hands, balling them into fists and relaxing them again, just to keep from running back and dragging her out of that elevator and then maybe bending her over the hood of the nearest car. Because dammit, yes, that much was clear to him now -- he wanted her. He wanted her.

All in good time, DiNozzo. Keep going.

Chapter Text

But in the bright light of morning, things weren't as clean-cut as he'd thought they were, of course.

In the bright light of morning, she got a call from Ray and he saw her face light up before she could censor it, before she even noticed that Tony was watching her.

In the bright light of morning, it messed him up a little that she reacted to another guy like that, so easily, so smoothly, her mouth softening and her eyebrows losing the crinkle she had sported ever since last night. And even though he'd believed that something had changed between them last night, the bright light of morning showed him that the importance of that moment might have been just a figment of his imagination, because here she was, smiling and being all soft for another guy.

So in the middle of the night, when EJ called him, he said, "Sure, why not", and that was about all it took, no hardships involved, no complicated decisions.

It wasn't the same, but it was pleasant, and he knew his way around her without having to think about it twice.

It was easier, and it was a much better distraction than a movie. But unlike most double features, part of him was anxious for the credits to roll and the sequel with a different cast to begin.

*** *** ***
He knew he should feel guilty about it in the morning, and for a while he tried. But then Ziva walked in with her fancy new boots and all smiley again, and that was when he withdrew and concentrated on that weird feeling of being centered and more in control instead. He wasn't used to it yet, but he was getting there.

He had to admit, she looked good. So good it made him wonder why she had never played dress-up for him. He was pretty sure he would have been able to appreciate it.

Just then she said her line and smiled, and when she turned and almost-winked at him, Tony realized with a start that it was Ray who drew this side out of her. Ray, who encouraged her and gave her pretty gifts, and right now, she felt fancy and girly enough to go along with it. And while he watched her sit down and tuck away her phone, he also realized that she'd never shown that playful side to Tony before for a very simple reason: he had never asked her to. Because he'd been too damn content with what she'd shown him on her own.

*** *** ***
So, fancy Ray, opera Ray, CI-Ray, he turned out not to be quite what Tony had expected. He was, sadly, far from the suave sugar daddy he had conjured up in his mind, and he found that he had no idea why Ziva thought of that man as 'safe'.
Because he wasn't. He was goddamn CIA. He had deception for breakfast, and he couldn't be one of the good-good guys.

And yet, he made Ziva smile.

*** *** ***
It wasn't really a paper towel that Ray flicked into the waste bin. It was Tony's heart, all bunched up neatly and ready for recycling.

He managed to keep breathing and not show any of the pesky feelings that tore through him, although later he would have no idea how.

"You're like a brother to her."

He would have preferred safe, but apparently, he wasn't even that.

*** *** ***
"No," he wanted to say. "I don't think they will get used to you. I'm not even sure I will, you know."

Of course he didn't say it out loud. He never did that, never spoke his mind when he needed to, always just dodged stuff and hoped it would work out alright without him having to do something about it.

So what happened was, of course, not the thing that had been on his mind when EJ had started talking about skylights and cities, but something unexpected instead. Something that turned a few nice and uncomplicated nights into a situation to get used to.

He couldn't help the thought that fate had a crappy habit of rubbing his nose into the mess he made.

*** *** ***
She never cried. He would have known that, like he always knew with her. But he didn't need to see her eyes wet to know about her pain.
*** *** ***
Later, it occurred to him that he should try and talk her out of it. That he should remind her that she'd spent the better part of the year with the guy, after all, and that he was pretty sure there had been a reason for that besides the skiing trips.

Then he thought that maybe he should even nudge her a bit and remind her that she had never told Ray anything about her work, either. Granted, he probably hadn't asked, but that wasn't the point here. Ray with his impressive security clearance probably had a lot less liberties in telling her all about his deepest, darkest secrets.

And maybe, if all of that failed, Tony would start spilling a secret of his own: that he actually thought, despite his expectations, that Ray was a pretty decent guy. (He adored the ground on which Ziva walked, so he couldn't be all bad, right?) And even though it would toss around his own heart a little more, he would probably tell her that Ray deserved a bit more leeway here.

That was the kind of thing big brothers did, after all.

*** *** ***
He wasn't even lying when he said it. In some ways, he did understand EJ pretty well, and mostly in the way that he didn't have to understand her. She felt familiar, easy to navigate, and no hidden mine fields to encounter did make for a refreshing change from other women.

It wasn't the worst of things to settle for, and he knew that. That was why he could make this sound and feel convincing.

He felt Ziva staring at him, felt the full weight of her eyes on him, and so he kept his own lowered to watch his scotch. He hadn't really answered her questions here, and he was glad she didn't press on because he had no real answer for those.

He didn't know what he would do when Gibbs found out. He had no idea, really, what all of this was about. But he could tell Ziva what she needed to hear.

Probably not the most rewarding decision he had ever made, but right now, it felt mostly right, at least.

Now all he had to do was avoid Ziva's gaze for the rest of the night because he may have been ready for the decision, but not for dealing with the consequences. Not yet.

Chapter Text

It's dark in his bedroom when he hears the door slide open quietly. Soft footsteps follow, and when he cracks open his eyes, he sees Ziva standing beside his bed.

Of course. Who else would sneak into his bedroom in the middle of the night? Clearly just his ninja girl.

Well, okay, it's not all that clear, really, because he can barely distinguish her shadowy form from the darkness. But by now, he thinks, he might even know her shadows intimately, not just her curves and angles.

He blinks, and it feels as if he's not quite awake yet, but in truth he is glaringly alert and acutely aware of her presence. Her breath comes very slow, almost too relaxed. He knows her well enough to realize she is controlling it carefully. She tries not to give anything away, and that makes him itchy.

For now, she's just watching him (he knows she can see him just fine), and she is silent for so long that he finally decides to break out of this stupid game. So he sits up and reaches for the lamp on his nightstand. Ziva blinks a few times because even her eyes need to adjust, and he uses her distraction to swing his legs over the edge of the bed. It's strangely gratifying to see her look away for a second while a sudden rush of color flushes her cheeks. Yeah, he likes to sleep naked. She should have guessed as much.

Eventually she does glance back at him, even though she doesn't really look at him. She keeps her eyes lowered, and her gaze is dancing all over the place. He's not sure what to make of this, so he asks her, and a tiny jolt runs through her at the sound of his voice. Then she presses her lips tightly shut, and suddenly there's a weird expression on her face, some sort of determination that wasn't there before. Her hands come up, and she slips out of her jacket and then starts to unbutton her blouse.

Tony watches her quietly. He doesn't want to stare, but he can't help it, he likes her body too much to look away now. He didn't have enough opportunities yet to see her like this, and he is far from sated when it comes to looking at her.

"What's this about?" he asks, and she drops her blouse and takes a step closer towards him and still doesn't answer. At least not verbally.

She does drop to her knees and reaches out for him, though, and yeah, he should be embarrassed, but he's getting hard by the time she touches his knees and makes him spread his legs for her with the tiniest tap of her fingertips. All the decisions in the world can't take that away from him, and Ziva knows, of course -- knew it before she had the first button popped, probably. Being wanted is a turn-on of a very special nature.

"Zi," he says and watches her skin tighten at the sound and the new intimacy of it. She licks her lips, and her nipples harden and perk up while she scoots closer. She doesn't look up, just brushes her fingertips across his skin and lets them ghost all over him, exploring him until he gasps because she's touching him just the right way now, and her hands travel high on the insides of his thighs. She leaves goose bumps in her wake, and he can't stop staring at her, with his lips parted and his breath coming in harsh pants.

He wants to frown and ask her what she wants to prove with this, but he's not strong enough to do that, not strong enough to speak up and object to her touching him like she does now, and so he keeps watching her and runs his own hand up her arm and waits for what she'll do next.

Turns out her intentions aren't that hard to figure out, really.

Her grip is strong, no-nonsense, and he fights the urge to close his eyes and let his head fall back when she starts stroking him. He can't. He loves it too much, and there's no chance in hell he's going to miss a single second of this.

She leans closer, and the soft skin of her torso brushes against his thighs. Her perfect little breasts are so tight now that he feels overwhelmed by the urge to suck them until she finally loses that tightness of hers and makes a sound for him. Any sound, really. He knows he could draw one out of her if he tries hard enough, and he--

"Fuck," he presses out when she twists her hand just right and her thumb runs across the head of his cock. "Yeah... g--"

He loses the word he just found, and Ziva finally looks at him. Watches him, still eerily quiet, just jerks him slowly. It makes his head spin, and it leaves him so hard it's close to painful. And then he gasps for air and almost doubles over when her hand slides down his cock again and is followed by her mouth this time, and heat and spit and god, she's scorching him--

He pants hard and stares down at her naked back, and he can't get over the fact that she is kneeling in front of him like that and goddamn swallowing down his cock like there's no tomorrow. Reality is clashing badly with the images anchored in his mind, and honestly, Ziva, sucking him off like that? He's not quite sure which category this belongs into.

She knows what she's doing there, too. She knows her way around him as if they'd been doing this for years, and yeah, that may be just because he's a guy and easily tickled happy, but god. He groans when she tightens her lips around his flesh and her tongue does a weird little trick that makes him see stars. Part of him wants to stop this because it's all too much and too intense, but he's never felt so incredibly helpless before, and so all he can do is reach out for her and touch her back, to ground himself and to make this feel a little less surreal.

Her skin is all slick with sweat and almost as hot as her mouth is, but she still tenses slightly at his touch. Her rhythm falters for a heartbeat. And that's what finally pulls him out of this. Just enough so he realizes how bizarre all of this really is.

He slides his palm further down her back and feels her muscles ripple when she tightens her grip on his thighs and her throat does that thing again, the thing that leaves him all breathless and shaking and gasping for air. He wants this to stop, and he sort of wants this to go on forever, and he's never been buried as deep in someone else.

He presses out her name through his teeth, hard, and that's about all he can do right now: gasp her name and touch her back and feel her swallow hard around his cock. She's relentless, and he can't find the strength to make her stop. He's weak. He's always been when it comes to her, he's always been too willing and not strong enough to deny her, so he lets her continue, and it shuts down his mind and forces helpless little sounds out of his throat.

He stares down at her, at the back of her neck and the sweaty curls there, and while he runs his fingers through them, he feels her smile around his cock, and then there's her voice, suddenly, a rough whisper against his neck, and that's weird because she's still--

"You can never be my brother," she murmurs, and no, he can't, not when he sees her like this in his head and her voice with the hint of laughter ringing in it makes his skin tighten, and then suddenly her teeth are on his neck and mark him hard. And god, he loves every second of it. So fucking much--

He groaned, and there were suddenly more stars cluttering his vision, showering him with the intensity of coming awake too harshly, too suddenly. And then the lingering phantom feel of dream-Ziva's lips was too much for him.

He clenched his teeth and tried not to release the sound rising from deep in his throat. It would have been a weird mixture of release and frustration, and he knew that letting this one out would make others follow, so he fought the sensations washing over him until it was all over and he was breathing hard and drenched in sweat.

He blinked and stared at the ceiling until his pulse had slowed down again. It was tempting to let his thoughts run free with this one, to let images and feelings tumble through him and confuse him and jerk him around. Not going there was hard work.

His jaw hurt by the time he threw back the sheets. His whole body felt stiff when he stalked to the bathroom to clean himself up, and it was no wonder because he couldn't remember the last time he had been so tense.

A stranger's face watched him warily when he flicked the lights on, and he leaned on the sink and studied his mirror image cautiously. There was a lot of tension going on in the tightly drawn brows, and the angry emotion flickering through green eyes made his own skin crawl.

His hands clenched tight around the edge of the sink. He really, really wasn't up for this.

"Oh, screw you," he eventually pressed out through gritted teeth, but his twin just watched him in mock silence, unimpressed and not reacting to the self-dealt insult. He'd heard worse, after all.

Chapter Text

"The Talk", as Ziva would later refer to it, happened in a way she hadn't planned and on a day when she didn't feel even remotely prepared for it, but it happened anyway.

Later, she would be glad about it, but when it started, she only felt her hackles rise and her teeth grind, all because EJ Barrett stepped into the elevator with her.

"David," the blonde agent called cheerfully, and Ziva blinked, feeling the same irritation rise in her gut that was there every time EJ ventured too far into her space.

"Special Agent Barrett," she replied slowly, and yes, maybe she put a slight emphasis on her title because this -- not just this, really, but right then it was the only thing she could pinpoint -- this way of addressing her just rubbed her the wrong way, and she felt weirdly passive-aggressive about it. (At other times, in the rare moments when Ziva managed to be a little more honest with herself, she even had to admit that she leaned more towards the aggressive side of reactions when it came to Barrett.)

"Why are you staring a hole in my back, David?"

Ziva hated the fact that she actually flinched at the question. Hated the fact that the words had come as a surprise. And she hated her own reaction to them, the unsettled feeling that suddenly rose in her stomach. For a moment, she clenched her teeth and thought that it would be better to just let go of this. That it wasn't the right time and place. That it really wasn't Ziva's job to do this because each of them was a grown-up and responsible for his or her own life.

But then, while she took a step forward without having thought about it first and she almost brushed EJ aside to reach the emergency break switch, she realized that there would never be a right time and a right place, and that she would have to seize this one if she didn't want things to go like they usually went -- astray.

EJ didn't even bother to step away or evade her sudden closeness. She merely turned her head to look at Ziva with her brow doing a weird twisty thing that could have been called curious. "What is it with you people and elevators, really?"

'No surveillance,' Ziva wanted to reply, but she would have rather bitten her tongue off than to provide her with that kind of information. It might give the woman ideas. And given how... single-minded her ideas sometimes seemed to be...

"I would just like to make one thing very clear to you, Special Agent Barrett," she said, letting the words fall slowly and carefully controlling the way her voice brimming with hidden implications.

EJ's mouth twisted in response, and that gave her an expression that looked both pouty and amused. Ziva didn't like that mouth, but she could see why Tony did, and that thought turned out to be a little more disconcerting than she'd thought it would.

No, she really didn't like that mouth. She also didn't like the thinly veiled arrogance the blonde woman exuded. And again, she could see why this very thing would be exactly what appealed to Tony.

"I don't know yet how you handle your own team, Special Agent Barrett," she said carefully. Barely hidden annoyance flashed across EJ's face at the words, and that, in turn, made Ziva frown and straighten her posture. "But ours is like a family. Close-knit, I believe is the term?"

And that was the exact moment EJ rolled her eyes. "This does have a point, right?"

Ziva blinked, tilting her head and watching the woman. Usually, she would have felt stunned by this level of rashness. Instead, she just found herself mildly amused. There was no way she could bring herself to take this woman seriously.

"It does," she said, stepping closer to Barrett, and this time, EJ actually bothered to turn and face her full on. "Family looks out for each other. And if any member of my team gets hurt during your investigation--"

"'Any'?" EJ interrupted her smugly, and Ziva pursed her lips and then nodded in quick acknowledgement. No need to beat around the hedge, apparently.

"Very well, then. If Tony gets hurt during this, you will be the one held responsible."

EJ watched her cautiously, silent for a moment. Then she raised her chin. "I'm not scared of Gibbs," the blonde replied, and there it was again, the tone of voice that made Ziva's fingers itch with the need to punch the side of her neck in the way that would leave EJ on her knees and gasping for air.

She didn't give in to the desire to inflict pain, but she took another step closer to the other agent, almost crowding EJ by now, meeting her eyes straight on.

"That is not only stupid," she murmured, her voice just a velvet touch that made EJ's eyes narrow involuntarily, "but also the wrong reaction. Because if anything happens to Tony, you will answer to me."

For a few moments, Ziva held the curious gaze trained on her. She could see the wheels turning in EJ's brain, how she put assumptions together and then disregarded them again until finally the puzzle pieces clicked into place and formed a new picture for her. But even though her perception of the situation was a different one now, her reaction didn't differ much from her previous one: She actually leaned into Ziva's face and met the Israeli's stare squarely while another of her smug little grins played around her pouty mouth.

"I'm not scared of you either."

And it was a weird reaction, yes, but Ziva couldn't help the answering smile that tugged at the corners of her own mouth. Couldn't help the way her hand itched and wanted to come up to grab a fistful of blonde hair and yank hard. Couldn't help running her eyes down EJ's slim figure and wondering about pressure points and remembering where exactly she had to hurt her to inflict the greatest amount of pain. And while she glanced at the Special Agent like that, assessing the situation, she did something she rarely let happen: she dropped one of her numerous masks, and for a tiny moment, no more than a heartbeat, she showed Barrett what was usually well hidden behind it.

She wasn't quite sure if the glimpse of memories or the cold calculation of how to kill her best showed more. Maybe it was the barest hint of what she had done in her previous life, of the things that had never haunted her in nightmares because there was a part of her that had been born as the perfect weapon.

Whatever it was, something she saw in Ziva's face made EJ blink and take a hard step away from her, backing up against the elevator wall with a new expression flickering in her eyes. And Ziva smiled at her, so sweetly it was meant to raise goose bumps.

"You best make sure that remains your only mistake, Special Agent Barrett," she nodded slowly, and while she turned and flipped the emergency switch back, she wondered how her own voice could sound so calm while her heart beat in her throat.

She waited for the elevator to come to a halt, and when she stepped out of it, EJ's gaze was heavy in her back. It was mildly unsettling, but Ziva kept going while her pulse did weird things to her and worked in direct opposition to the strange sense of satisfaction and contentment that spread through her.

She had forced these things, these urges that spoke of her past, out of her mind up until now, because she'd needed to keep them as far away from her new self as possible.

But like a drug addiction, these things sometimes came back to the surface in the most unlikely moments. And the taste of fear was highly addictive.

Chapter Text

The eye thing didn't let his mind shut down.

Sure, on the outside he concentrated on the report he was trying to finish, but inside, his brain was doing its thing and doing overtime at that.

It just felt too personal to be coincidental, and that got him right where it hurt. Stuff like that had always gotten under his skin.

Of course EJ had disagreed and brushed it off, saying that the killer could have chosen any of the agents to deliver his frozen message, but somehow Tony doubted that it was really just a case of first come, first served, pun fully intended. His gut (which was, admittedly, a lame-ass version of Gibbs's) insisted that he'd been chosen as the recipient because he'd known the former owner of the eye. And that thought was unsettling enough to have him running a list of former friends and coworkers and cross-reference them in his head. Wondering.

He didn't notice how lost in his thoughts he really was though until Ziva switched off his desk lamp and he found himself blinking at the sudden change in lighting. He turned his head, feeling slightly stupefied, and her look of concern didn't help.

"Go home, Tony," she said, and there was an unfamiliar indulgence ringing in her voice. "You've been staring at the same page for more than an hour now."

"Maybe I like that page."

He watched her face soften in a strange way, as if she were thinking about ruffling his hair for a moment, and that look got him so good that he felt himself reeling with the quite unexpected urge to pull her close and bury his face into her stomach until she would, maybe, wrap her arms around him.

He held his breath until the moment passed, then he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. I think I could use a drink," he sighed and shot her an almost hesitant glance. "You game?"

She made a face, and it was only then that he remembered what had happened the last time they'd had one together.

"I was thinking of something more healthy for the rest of the night," she replied, and that made him grimace in return. "Going for a run, maybe."

The words echoed between them in a way that felt more like a question rather than a statement, and when he looked up to meet her gaze, he found her eyes so carefully guarded that his gut did strange things to him, again.

"I'm game," he said, and even while he turned to power down his computer, he saw her relax.

*** *** ***
They finished their first mile through the dimly lit park in total silence, and that was what made him relax, eventually. The dull thuds of their sneakers on the ground and the even, carefully controlled breaths of Ziva beside him soon turned into a soothing monotone that eventually allowed the tension to seep out of him and pleasantly emptied his mind, a little more with each step.

At least until he noticed it.

After that, his thoughts kept circling around Ziva and the weird ways of their relationship and how it had evolved lately into something so very different from the place they had started out in. And he found that for whatever whacky reason, it had suddenly gotten a lot easier to talk to her. It felt strangely familiar and -- for lack of a better word --- safe. Somehow, he'd have expected her to be more judgmental about all of this. He wasn't sure why. Maybe because he had always been so much more judgmental about her men.

Oh, he could tell she didn't like the fact that he was sleeping with EJ. He knew her well enough that this one was a no-brainer, really. But she never let it show consciously, not after they had started spilling stuff to each other at one point, and she always worked hard on keeping a tight rein on her assessment of the situation. When she talked to him or asked him uncomfortable questions, her tone of voice was always so carefully neutral that he loved her for that alone.

It's nice, having someone to talk to.

He blinked, losing his step for a moment at the memory of his own voice, and Ziva shot him a quick sideways glance.

She probably thought he didn't know that she had adjusted her pace so he could keep up with her, but he wasn't really that dense. And because he wasn't, just a little preoccupied sometimes, this was the very thing that had just distracted him and made him stumble -- the realization that all of a sudden he shared his food and she throttled her steps and they had somehow adjusted around each other.

His cell phone beeped in his pocket, and he flinched. For a moment he thought about not answering because he was still busy evading his own head, but another glance from Ziva told him she had heard the sound, and he couldn't really ignore it now because it would look weird.

Finally, on my way home. I'm dying for a back rub.

He stared at the text for at least ten seconds before he realized that was EJ's way of inviting him over for the night. He glanced at Ziva and met her eyes for a heartbeat while they rounded a corner in unison. His thumb hovered over his phone for another moment, then he typed his answer.

Yeah, me too, but I'm running. Totally out of training.

He had barely tucked his phone away when it buzzed again in answer.

Shower at my place?

It was weird to stare at her text and wonder when his life had gotten complicated. He should have paid more attention, really.

Ziva's gaze was suddenly heavy on him, and he knew she was curious now, even though she would never ask. And maybe it was exactly that fact that made the decision for him, but her quiet company suddenly seemed a lot more appealing than a quick-n-dirty romp to blow off some steam.

Can't. Just started my round, other end of town. Will be too late when I finish.

He shoved his phone back into his pocket, intent on ignoring any answer that followed. There was none, and even though EJ would probably give him grief about this tomorrow, he eventually found his breathing slow down, and he lost some of the tension that had tightened his shoulders and neck up to the point where he was really longing for a back rub. Too bad he wouldn't get one now.

*** *** ***
It didn't take long until he noticed that somewhere in-between Ziva had picked up her pace and now he suddenly had trouble sticking to her side. He glanced at her curiously, just like she had shot him a few looks earlier, but her face didn't give anything away.

He frowned and looked closer, and yes, there was a tense set to her jaw suddenly that hadn't been there earlier.

"What's up?" he asked, and she shook her head and picked up an even faster pace that forced him to push harder to keep up with her. "Come on, Ziva, what--"

He reached out to touch her arm, and when he grasped her tense biceps, her steps suddenly faltered and she slowed down just as abruptly as she had sped up, coming to a halt beside him and crumbling in on herself. He stared at her face and tried to figure out what was going on, and when she looked up and met his eyes, he suddenly saw something flicker in there that he hadn't seen for a while.

"Are you pissed at me, too?" he asked, surprise ringing in his voice.

She broke the gaze and bent forward, resting her hands against her knees while she tried to get her spiked breathing back to normal. Again she shook her head, and again he stared at her, at the back of her neck, suddenly distracted and wondering if he would ever get rid of the stupid urge to reach out and touch her.

Eventually, she straightened and shook her legs to keep her muscles from stiffening up. Tony was pretty sure she believed that, like her breathing, her face was back under control by the time she met his eyes, but he, he knew her, and he saw that there was suddenly some heavy tension going on inside her. And he had no idea how he could have missed it before. He was even less sure why it came out now of all times, halfway through the night, when it was usually broad daylight that brought things to the surface.

Ziva was still completely silent while she dug her water bottle out of the tiny pack strapped to her hip, and he suddenly had the distinct feeling that she was trying to avoid the talk he felt coming up loud and clear. But somehow, the moment for easy avoidance had slipped past them, and Tony couldn't stop thinking about the fucking elephant and this new honesty thing they'd had between them lately.

He hadn't even noticed he had moved closer to her until she shoved the water bottle at him to distract him and keep him at a distance. He took the bottle absentmindedly and drank, and yes, some part of him was too aware of the way she suddenly stared at his throat and watched him swallow. They shouldn't look at each other like that, really. It didn't feel like a good idea, with all that had been going on lately. And yet, sometimes it seemed as if they had no chance.

A little shiver ran through her when he handed the bottle back to her and his fingers brushed hers. She took a sip of her own, and fuck, the simple fact that she didn't wipe first had him distracted so easily that he almost missed the expression flickering in her eyes. That one glance, it got him good and made him stagger -- not physically, but in his head, and it distorted his whole perception of the situation to the point where his throat was tight and his hands hurt because he wanted to cramp them into fists.

"You've given up on me," he accused her, surprise ringing in his voice.

Ziva froze for a heartbeat. The water bottle touched her lips, and she swallowed and tried without much success not to look any different. Eventually, she lowered the bottle carefully, slowly. Just as achingly slow she screwed the cap back on, and he watched her take her time, saw her breathing stumble over itself and the tell-tale pulse in her neck suddenly beat hard and fast. He'd gotten so used to checking it for clues.

Her hands played with the water bottle while she kept avoiding his eyes and did her best to look as calm and unflappable as she always pretended to be at work.

"You seem to be intent on making things work for you and EJ," she finally replied, and her shoulders gave a little motion that was probably meant to be a shrug, but turned out to be only halfway there. Her words were slow and so carefully pronounced that they felt a little sharp around the edges.

He stared at her, his brows drawing together while he tried to make sense out of her words and instead got more and more confused by the minute.

"Uhm, excuse me?" he said. "You were the one who shoved me into talking to Gibbs? Moving things along and all that crap?"

Now it was Ziva's turn to frown and look at him as if he were not only dense, but had lost his mind somewhere along the last mile. "You started it."

"I... wait, what?"

She blinked and stared at him for a second. Then she turned all the way and faced him while she crossed her arms. "'He's CIA, Ziva, they have a sworn duty to protect what they know...'," she mock-quoted his own words back at him. And yeah, deep down inside he knew it was screwed up, but the way she tilted her head while she spoke, bobbing it left and right as if she were quoting a cartoon character, that made her look so endearing that he felt the urge to lean over and do something childish, like flick his finger against her earlobe or tickle her or pull her hair.

Her words were not overly endearing, though, and it took Tony a moment to connect them with this situation in his head. When he did, he felt his face scrunch up into a frown, because really, since when was she so fast to put the blame on him?

Ziva, though, just watched him, waiting for his reaction. It felt strange to see her face so weirdly open and her eyes carefully guarded and closed down at the same time. So what was this, she was pissed off because he had tried to do the right thing for once? Tried to move on and leave her a chance at working it out with a halfway decent guy? Seriously?

"I think I did an okay job there," he pressed out, raising his chin and glaring at her in the old way, the one that had never gotten them anywhere, and yes, it was stupid, totally, but he couldn't help his big mouth now, just like all the times before, and just like his brain, his mouth sometimes came up with a load of crap that couldn't be stopped from falling out. "Considering I have no idea how to treat a sister."

Her face suddenly looked a shade more pale than it had just a minute ago, even in this dim light. And he knew that he was venturing into incredibly juvenile territory now, but for the fraction of a second he couldn't help the deep satisfaction rushing through him because even now, he was still able to hit her like this. And yes, it was more than uncomfortable, but he had to admit that part of him wanted her to feel something when he threw stuff at her.

Ziva's mouth opened and closed again, and he waited for what she would say, waited with his eyes narrowed and his pulse doing a rumba and part of his anger already crumbling away under the sudden onslaught of straightforwardness he saw in her face.

"I see," she breathed out eventually. "I assume Ray told you that?"

He nodded, and she pulled a face in not quite the way he had expected. It made him narrow his eyes even more, and he watched her carefully now. He didn't even care that his body was starting to cool down and he would probably end up with a motherfucker of a cramp soon enough.

Her reaction was the important thing now. Because there was something going on here he hadn't known about before, and it could totally shift things around again, snap of fingers, and she looked at him like--

"So, was that the truth?" he pressed out when she didn't come forward on her own. Because, fuck, yes. He had to know. "Or is there more in this, Ziva? I mean, yes, the sex should make it obvious, but women do the weirdest things, and..."

His voice trailed off and he leaned closer so he could better see the conflicting emotions chasing themselves across her face. When she still didn't reply, he frowned and raised a hand to run it through his hair, and he found himself tugging a little too hard because all of a sudden he felt incredibly helpless and raw and too wide open for his own good. This honesty thing with Ziva, it was still too new to feel even remotely used to it, and yeah, it had worked alright as long as they had talked about other people, but he wasn't sure if it would still be okay for them once they started working out other... things. The important ones.

Once more he saw hesitation flare up in her eyes, and he knew that she was suddenly suffering from the same attack of nerves that bundled up in his own stomach. Realities clashed and warred inside her -- the one where they had always just danced around issues and never once touched them properly, which had become second nature to them, fighting the partnership of late, the strangely natural one that had them move together instead of away from each other. For a moment he actually wondered which one would win this round. He was pretty sure going back to the old ways was not a real option for them anymore, but you never knew.

And then, just when he fought down the urge to grab her and shake an answer out of her, something else happened to her face, and she smiled at him and gave him an unexpected smile and a shrug that looked the tiniest bit awkward, in a very girlish and un-Ziva way. If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn that he saw a sudden blush stain her cheeks.

"How many men tell their spouses they just hired a hot secretary, Tony?" she asked, a playful lilt to her voice, and she looked to the side, still smiling, almost coyly now, but at the same time splitting herself open so wide with that simple statement that he felt the backlash of her pain, too. The terror of being vulnerable because you just confessed to wanting something that maybe isn't within your reach.

When he didn't reply for a while, she glanced back at him, and whatever she saw in his face, it seemed to relax her a bit. Tony blinked, watching her, holding her gaze until he felt like grinning at her for some whacky reason.

"So, let me get this straight," he said, and she raised an eyebrow, going for poker face once more and, again, succeeding only halfway. "You think I'm hot and you hid that fact from Ray."

Ziva rolled her eyes at him because that was what they did, and it made a big, annoying grin spread out across his face. Yup, he was going straight for the important facts here, thank you very much.

He kept smiling at her and watched her face relax gradually until she was back to liking him and being Ziva, and that was when he suddenly, unexpectedly, got confused again and blinked at her. "Uhm, in that case, why are we even having this conversation?"

She looked caught all of a sudden, fighting her instinct to shut down now just like she had always done. In the end she didn't, though, and Tony watched her tilt her head and wondered why.

"Because," she said, so careful that he knew she was trying to hide some heavy, steep, biting emotion behind the calm mask again, "you seemed a lot more reserved since Ray is out of the picture."

Because I'm not sure if you just want me as long as I am with someone else.

He flinched at the memory of her words, slapping him in the face like a wet rag, and god, yes, deep down he'd always known what kind of an idiot he was, but it had seldom bit him in the ass so hard.

"No," he pressed out, and Ziva flinched when he came for her, his hand going for her neck and pulling her close before she could fight him. "No, no... just--"

She made a soft sound of protest, but it was lost in his mouth, and he closed his eyes, didn't want to see her expression, didn't want to see the moment coming when she'd shove him away and ask him what the fuck he thought he was doing.

Except that she didn't do that.

Her body was stiff against his for only a heartbeat, and then he suddenly felt her shudder and downright melt into him, her lips parting and her tongue flicking out to taste him and making his head spin with the heated response she drew out of him. Oh, god, yes, yes.

At least that part wasn't broken between them.

He felt her choked groan, and that turned the kiss messy, with spit on her lips and his tongue in her mouth and eating her until a shudder ran through her and her fingers curled to dig into his neck, and he couldn't help it then, he wanted more of her, wanted to run his hands all over her until she would be no longer thinking and losing it and coming for him. And fuck, yes, he could make her come so easily, that much was sure by now.

She gasped when he slid his hand under her sweater and touched bare skin, and it made her tear her mouth from his and turn her face to the side.

"No," she gasped, leaning back when he tried to capture her lips again and steal more kisses. She shook her head, and his hand on her neck tightened to keep her from slipping away. "No. I won't make that mistake again--"

"Mistake?" he huffed and tried to kiss her again while his hands worked hard at keeping her pressed to his chest. "Are you kidding me?"

He'd meant it to reassure her, to make her relax in his arms again, but for some reason this was the very thing that made her shove her flat hand against his chest until she could stumble back, out of his reach. And yes, there was a fire in her eyes now that was only partly fueled by lust. There was also a weird, irrational anger flaring up and scorching him.

"I had one weak moment--" she pressed through bared teeth, watching him cautiously, and he couldn't help the short bark of laughter that spilled over his lips.

"One?" he said, coming after her slowly while she backed away, step by step. "Sweetheart, once is a weak moment. Twice, maybe, but even that is venturing on stupid if you don't mean it in the first place. But three times? That, just now, that was it, third time, and three times -- that's a fucking pattern, Ziva."

Her eyes narrowed, and he saw the wheels turn in her head, saw her go back and forth and round and round in circles, and that was when he had enough and took one last step towards her, reaching out for her again.

"No," she murmured, trying to avoid his grip and pull back again, but her voice sounded strangely weak and indecisive all of a sudden.

"Yes," he replied, and his hand touched her neck and made a shiver run down her back. His mouth brushed hers, and she tilted her head, almost-willing, not quite fighting anymore, and her lashes fluttered against his cheek while his breathing sped up in sudden anticipation. "Please."

She blinked and turned her head again. Her hand came up to his chest, not pushing him away this time, just keeping him at enough of a distance so he wouldn't kiss her again. "I cannot be your side dish, Tony."

Her voice was so low that he didn't hear her at first. When he pieced the words together, though, he leaned towards her, his lips touching her temple, and god, yes, he wanted to reassure her, wanted to tell her this wasn't it, this was something else, this was more important than--

"You're not," he pressed out, but part of him knew that he had already lost this round, even without waiting for her reply.

She tilted her head back, staring at his face long enough to make him itchy. Then, just when he began to feel really nervous, she tapped her fingertips to his chest as if she wanted to remind him of something.

"I'm not the one the whole Yard knows about," she stated quietly. Her eyes were wide and weirdly soft all of a sudden, and maybe he was just imagining that because there was the same kind of sadness shining in them that had always gotten under his skin, from the very moment she had let him see it for the first time. Let him see that she was a human being behind all those masks and walls and disguises.

He sighed and let go of her because she was right and because he had to, and she took a step back, not fleeing him this time, just leaving his space and separating them once more. But just before she could turn away from him completely, his hand came up to her elbow, making her turn back to look at him curiously, waiting for what he had to say.

Maybe that's better, he wanted to say, but his voice failed him and he couldn't get the words out, because he wasn't feeling hazardous enough yet to show her what was really going on on his side of the fence.

But just like always, just like every single day lately, he didn't even have to say it out loud to have her understand him. The corner of her mouth twisted up in a quick grin that made things settle into place again, and he watched her face soften while she was giving him a bit of leeway without giving in yet. She twisted her arm so her elbow slipped out of his grasp, and then she turned her hand and took his and squeezed for the briefest moment before letting go.

"Come on," she said, winking at him. "I'll race you."

She was gone in a sudden flurry of movement, and he was after her just as fast, putting his legs to good work to catch up with her.

"Race me where? Ziva!" he called after her, putting as much indignation into it as he could. "Jesus, you do know you are one crazy chick, right?"

Her laughter was barely audible because she'd gotten a good head start, but it still ran down his back like a bright, sparkly caress, raising goose bumps in its wake.

Chapter Text

He thought he'd held himself rather well, given the circumstances, and he had, with most of them.

Except Ziva, of course. Ziva, who'd been shooting him glances the whole day. Ziva, who'd been radiating concern so loudly that it almost silenced the buzzing in his head. Ziva, who'd stayed at her desk long after everyone else had already left for home.

And now she came over, parked her pretty behind on his desk and gave him that look again. The one that was filled to the brim with compassion and other emotions she spent a lot of time pretending she didn't have. The look that always made him choke up a bit.

Right now, it was almost too much. Right now, he wasn't sure how much longer he could take this. How much longer he could fight the need to curl up in someone's arms, break down and shatter into a million pieces. Just for a little while.

"Come home with me, Tony," she said just then, and he blinked and refused to take his eyes off his screen because for a second he'd been too vulnerable and not entirely sure what she was offering.

Then he shook his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose and gave her a sigh that was non-committal enough to be the right reaction for every interpretation. "I'm not in the mood for takeout and a movie."

She snorted in response. The soft sound made him look at her, and oh, big mistake, really, because there was a scary tenderness in her face tonight that went right under his skin and twisted him inside out.

"I was going to cook," she said, and that got him vaguely interested because she was, like with most things, damn good in the kitchen when the situation demanded it.

He still turned back to his screen and shook his head once more. And then he stopped pretending for just a second. "This isn't something food's going to fix."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw her raise a brow as if she wanted to say 'Oh really?'. Then she shrugged and said instead, "You mourn, you eat."

And yeah, there was that.

*** *** ***
He felt slightly queasy when she let him into her apartment and then left him just standing there in the middle of it to vanish into her bedroom and slip out of her work cloths. His memory was hazy when it came to how her bedroom looked, but he distinctly remembered what it smelled like -- what she smelled like -- and how the texture of her sheets had felt on his skin, and for a heartbeat the memory rose so strongly in him that he had to fight the urge to push the bedroom door open and watch her while she undressed.

He didn't do it, of course. He wasn't sure what her reaction would be, after all -- if she'd tell him to get the fuck out or if she'd just turn and look at him and wait for him to close the distance between them. And he had no idea which of these reactions he actually wanted to get.

In the end, he just sighed and went over to the couch where he slipped out of his jacket and took off his tie.

It didn't take long until Ziva came back, wearing clothes that looked positively worn and soft. Grey, low-riding yoga pants and a light pink tank top that clearly fell into the comfortable home-wear category. (He would have bet a lot of money that she of all people certainly wouldn't own anything pink, but hey, what did he know about women.) Her hair was a loose mess now, flowing all over her shoulders and down her back, and he flexed his hands at the memory of having them buried deep into her curls. And he was all too aware that it wasn't the right thing to think, but right now he wanted to feel her like this again almost desperately.

She must have seen some of it in his eyes because for a heartbeat she stood frozen to the spot, with only her eyes dropping to his neck and the two open buttons of his shirt. Then she turned her head sharply, and while a blush crept up her neck, she cleared her throat and asked him to join her in the kitchen.

*** *** ***
He remembered sitting in her kitchen, too. Remembered how she had patched up his neck. Remembered, again, what that particular night had led to.

This didn't help.

*** *** ***
Her agile hands made quick work of the chicken breast (he should have guessed, her and knives, right?), and while she sliced away, he found himself staring at her bare arms and wondering why he had never noticed the scar at her left elbow before. She wasn't hiding it, after all.

Her words pearled off his skin while she made nice and pleasant conversation with him. Nothing heavy, nothing that pressed anything or even went anywhere, just distracting him and getting his head somewhere else. And in a way, she did a pretty good job with that: She distracted him enough that at one point he slipped up and spilled the big thing before he even noticed it coming out of his mind and mouth, and so, when the words fell from his lips, he froze for a moment, not sure where that had come from.

"You won't end up like him," Ziva replied and shot him a quick glance over her shoulder. There was a weirdly determined tone to her voice, and he wondered where she got that from. "You are too moral."

He wanted to laugh at that because really, she had her thinking twisted here. What kind of moral was it to want one woman and keep sleeping with another? But that wasn't what she'd meant, and yeah, he knew he'd probably never be in any real danger to turn dirty like Danny had, but if he did, it would sure rip him up just the same.

"That's not really--" He broke off and tried to collect his thoughts and figure out what exactly he was worried about. And the one idea that reared its head felt a little less hazy and a little more familiar by now. "I just don't want to wake up one day and have my life consist of only work and pretty memories and a bit of booze to call it a night, you know?"

Ziva finished chopping up her tomatoes, and she was quiet for so long that he suspected at first she had no idea what to say and thus went for the easy solution and waited for him to keep talking. But then he noticed a certain tension in her shoulders and the way she held herself and how her busy knife had slowed down. Somehow, it seemed, he had hit a nerve there without even trying.

"What?" he asked, and she blinked. Her knife picked up its former speed again.

"Having a regular life, one outside from work," she finally tiptoed through her words, "is not what it's supposed to be, for people like us. I tried."

"Yeah, well." He gave her a shrug even though he knew she wouldn't see it with her back turned towards him. "You tried it with someone who is still, sort of, from the same job. I mean -- keeping it all purely private fantasy, with this guy? How was that supposed to work in the long run, Ziva?"

"I didn't choose him for his profession," she cut him off heatedly, putting her knife down hard.

"I know, right?" He kept his eyes fixed on the tiny patch of skin he could see where her shirt had ridden up at her waist and tried not to wonder why exactly she had chosen Ray in the first place. How she'd met him, even. "It still had to clash at one point. You can't keep the CIA out of the skiing and the opera forever." And maybe it was utterly childish, but right now he thoroughly enjoyed rubbing her nose into the fact that her attempts at having some sort of private life sucked just as hard as his own did.

She rinsed off her chopping board and cleaned her knife and didn't reply for a while. Then she suddenly asked, "So what do you and Agent Barrett do outside of work?", and this time he blinked at her decision to just skip the uncomfortable part altogether and turn the whole thing around on him instead.

He watched her wipe her workplace down and wasn't entirely sure if he should find it amusing how steadfastly she refused to call EJ by her first name... or was that first names? Initials? "Well, we--"

And that was it: the moment where he broke off again because he wasn't sure how to answer that one, after all. Partly because he didn't want to sound like a horny bastard, sure, but mostly because he really had a problem in coming up with an answer.

They did... well, stuff. Eat, drink, watch a movie and fuck halfway through it. They talked, sure. Sort of. Sometimes.

His silence must have gone on for too long because suddenly his attention switched to the way she turned the frying contents of the pan over, concentrating very hard on the mechanics of it. And then, just as slowly and carefully as she stirred, she said, "I see." Just that, one line, two syllables, spoken in such a cautiously neutral way that it felt completely fake.

"It's not just fucking," he pressed out heatedly. (He always denied what she accused him of, after all.)

Ziva, though, didn't even look at him. She just turned towards one of her cupboards and took out two plates.

"I didn't say that," she finally said, and her voice was still treading lightly, the tone carefully chosen not to offend.

And it was childish, yet again, but right now? He wanted to feel offended. "But you thought it."

"Tony, it's your life and your decisions, and just because I think in the long run things might--" She took a deep breath and swallowed the words that wanted to follow, swallowed them hard, and the way she suddenly turned her head away from him told him just how much she had just let slip. How hard she disapproved.

He kept staring at her back, at the way she had her palms pressed against the counter now, her shoulders tense and knotted. Eventually, she took a deep breath, took the plates and came over to the table to set them down.

"It does not matter. It is not my place to tell you what will or will not work out for you."

Her face was carefully shut down while she spoke, not showing any of the emotions that ran high inside her, and he remained silent while she turned again and stirred one last time before she brought the pan over and spread the contents on their plates. It smelled spicy and creamy and delicious, and his stomach gave a jolt at the enticing scent. Right now, though, he couldn't help being distracted by something else.

"What do you think would work out in the long run, Ziva?"

She blinked and licked a drop of sauce off her finger, slowly, lost in thought and not even noticing how he stared at her mouth.

"Something that is more balanced," she shrugged eventually, putting the pan away and then sitting down at the table with him. "Someone you do not only share sex and work with."

"Does that rule us out, too?" The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, but he had to know. He just had to.

She took a very slow breath while she refused to meet his gaze, and this time he was the one who remained quiet and didn't press it because she seemed to be genuinely thinking about it, and if he rushed things now, he might never get an answer. At least not one he wanted to hear.

After a while, she relaxed the tiniest bit and shrugged once more. "I wouldn't know. I never dated you."

She picked up her fork and poked the chicken pieces on her plate indecisively, and for some reason, this whole thing suddenly seemed so unreal that it amused him pretty good. Like one of these movies that were so embarrassing they made you cringe inwardly while you still doubled over with laughter. Like anything with Ben Stiller, really.

"You'd want to date me?" he asked, giving his question just the right note of fake disbelief to take the real weight from it, and she raised her eyes with an answering smile tugging at her lips.

"Maybe," she said, tilting her head as if she were pondering the thought. "If it would involve going someplace that is not a movie theater."

He blinked in mock surprise. "People do that?" he asked. "Why?"

Ziva shrugged. "I have no idea. I only heard rumors." Her easy smile faded while she picked at her food again and actually took a bite this time, but just like him she didn't seem all that hungry, and so she ended up glancing at him sideways again, asking "How do you feel?"

It made him grimace. Simple question, straight to the core -- and thus, hardest to answer. He had no idea how he felt about any of this, really, except that his emotions contained a good slice of weird these days.

"You mean was your little ploy of distraction a success and have I picked myself up yet?" he finally went for his usual way of sarcastic deflection. "Or how do I feel about outliving my former partner?"

Only this time his usual way didn't seem to work with her. (Did it ever, really?) She just kept looking at him intently, searching his face.

"No," she said. "I mean how do you feel about losing your friend?"

He sat up a bit straighter and took in a sharp breath, and then he looked away and avoided her gaze. "I already lost him years ago."

She didn't reply, and when he glanced back at her after a while, she had cocked her head to the side and her brows were drawn together into a thoughtful little frown as if she were rolling her own words around in her head once more. "You never call him by his name."

"That's not true."

"Yes, it is," she said, her eyes narrowing the slightest bit. "All the times we spoke, you haven't used his name." Her eyes kept searching his face, and while he thought about her words, he hated her a little for seeing this when he hadn't himself.

He stared at his plate and picked up his fork, but even while he raised it he knew that ignoring this wouldn't make it go away. It would only turn this into yet another thing standing between them.

"He lied to me, Ziva," he heard himself say before he felt ready for it, and yes, even he realized there was a certain irony in the fact that he used this particular phrasing. "He was a dirty cop, and I was working with him day and night and I still had no idea. And he was supposed to have my back." He put down the fork again, and his hands twitched nervously when he turned his head to meet Ziva's eyes, bracing himself for the inevitable reminder that he should be a grownup about this and get over it already. Water under the bridge and all that jazz, right? Ten years and counting.

He wasn't prepared for the compassion shining in her eyes, and that was when he understood just how much she knew about what was really going on inside him. Because she'd been lied to by her former partners as well, more often than him probably. And just like that, he suddenly understood why she wasn't willing to grant Ray any second chances.

"Hm," she said and pursed her lips in thought, and he wondered what that meant. "Did he ever let you down?"

"Well, yeah, when he decided to lie to me."

"On the job, Tony," she clarified. "Did he ever end up not having your back?"

He frowned at that and thought about it, and he took his time with this particular exercise. He went through at least a dozen different scenarios in his mind, and in the end, he shook his head. And Ziva just nodded as if that alone had answered all the questions in the universe.

He wondered if things could actually be that simple. Doubtful, really. Even though she was sometimes better at letting certain things go than he was, forgiveness was not really her strongest trait.

And then he suddenly felt a chill raise the hairs at the back of his neck, a feeling of dread that came out of the blue and hit him in the gut, and he shuddered and tried to shake it off. He failed.

"Can we agree on not doing that to each other?" he blurted out, and when she looked at him curiously, he gave her a half-shrug. "Not lying about the big things, I mean."

She blinked and then looked away fast, and he frowned while she put down her own fork quietly. There was something else going on all of a sudden, something he didn't know about yet, and it heightened the chill and cramped up his heart because there was only so much he could cope with at once.


"I... want to apologize," she murmured, and her voice was so low now that he had a hard time understanding her.

"For what?" he asked carefully, and a soft shudder ran through her at the dread that was palpable in his voice.

"For what I did to you two years back. For not choosing your side earlier. For... for lying to you while I was with Michael."

The tip of her index finger traced the lines in the wood of her kitchen table, and he saw how she almost lost herself in the constant, repetitive motion, in watching her own hand while her voice grew less audible with each word. He raised his hand and grabbed hers to still it, and she flinched hard and turned her head to look at him as if she only now noticed he was there. Her eyes were suddenly wide and suspiciously shiny, and he wasn't sure what to say or how to treat her when she gave him such a vulnerable face, so he just stared down at her hand. Almost tiny in his. Not pulling back.

"I'm sorry I never told you about being undercover," he heard himself say. The words just fell from his lips, and he had no way of holding them back. Tiny drops of honesty, locked away for too long. "I should have trusted you there, too."

She remained very quiet, and when he looked up, he expected her to just nod or some other form of the simple acceptance he had gotten used to from her. To his surprise, she gave him a look that was a weird mix of bewilderment and compassion, again.

"That was ages ago," she said eventually, and he kind of loved her for saying it, like it didn't really matter, even though it did. Even after all these years.

"It was still wrong." And just like that, it was so incredibly hard to meet her eyes. Maybe because now there was a new understanding there that he hadn't seen earlier. Maybe, though, because she suddenly looked at him with her emotions all laid out in the open and there for him to see and tread upon, and that got under his skin so good that he felt too vulnerable himself. "Can we agree on just not doing that again?" And what was it about her goddamn kitchen table that she always brought these things out of him in the middle of the night, really? The things that were able to tip the whole balance between them so easily?

A tiny tremor ran through her, and he felt her shudder in his palm. For a moment he thought she'd pull away now. Then she took a slow, deep breath and turned her hand in his, palm up, her fingers sliding against his until he reacted and laced his fingers with hers.

"I will not," she said, her voice sounding ragged and slightly broken, but so strong underneath that he believed her without a second's hesitation. "Do that again, I mean."

"Okay," he murmured, and there it was again, that damn urge to crawl into her lap and curl up there and have her arms around him until the pain stopped and it all went away. He tried to take even breaths, and he thought that he had it almost under control, but then she suddenly raised her eyes to meet his square on, and that one look cut deep because he saw something very similar in her face, something that was all raw and painful and barely tucked away just below the surface. And so he pressed out "Same here" because it was only fair and because it needed to be said.

He knew she'd hold him if he would break down just now. He simply knew, just like he knew that she'd probably sleep with him tonight, not just to ease his need, but her own, too. And it would be incredible, and it would blow his mind (again), and yeah, it would make him break down even harder, and he'd probably end up crying in her arms, but even that would be a good thing.

But in the end, he'd have to let go of her again. And that wouldn't do. Not tonight.

He held her hand tightly, and she returned the pressure, squeezing his fingers and holding his gaze. And then, just like they always did, they picked the same moment to let go and untangle their fingers, and Tony picked up his fork and finally took a bite and tasted what she had cooked for him.

Because whatever he thought of the rules these days, Gibbs sure had been right about one thing -- you didn't waste something good.

Her eyes remained a heavy weight on him, but he did his best to ignore the uneasy feeling and munched his food. And after a few more bites, he felt himself relax enough to really take in the flavor and enjoy what he ate.

"This is good," he mumbled around a piece of chicken, and he turned his head to the side to look at her, just in time to see her face light up with a soft smile.

Chapter Text

"I can't be alone tonight."

It was Abby who said it first, of course, asking for the one thing they were all thinking about. The thing that was too enormous to say out loud. The thing they needed to ease their minds and find some rest tonight and yet couldn't seem to voice.

When she said it, murmuring it against Ziva's cheek, Tony felt something shift in their circle, like the first breeze of spring chasing the winter storms away. Felt their arms tighten even more around each other while they dragged their friends that tiny extra bit closer. Felt the way their separate sorrows and pains mingled into something shared. Something neither of them would have expected this morning.

Tony blinked and turned his head to rest it against Ziva's temple. Her hand tightened in his back when he moved, and he felt her fingers clench in the fistful she had grabbed of his jacket. Possessive. Protective.

"My place," he pressed out and closed his eyes while he waited for his throat to unclench. "Biggest couch. You guys can crash there."

For a moment he thought McGee would step back now and flee from what was going on, but then the Probie just nodded and stayed where he was, sticking to their sides. Abby replied something Tony couldn't understand, and there was a soft hiccup to her voice while she tightened her arms around her chosen family, not willing to let go yet.

Under other circumstances, he might have wondered why none of them asked where Ziva was going to crash. Tonight, he knew there was no reason to ask.

*** *** ***
His gaze kept drifting to McGee and Abby on the back seat, her with the head in his lap and the Probie stroking her arm gently, endlessly, not stopping once.

It was easier than looking at Ziva beside him, who couldn't seem to stop crying. Ziva the strong, who was not strong at all tonight. Tonight she was hardly more than a confused little girl, with her eyes all puffy and her hands flexing nervously and her lips trembling because her world had just been rearranged.

Halfway there, he suddenly reached out and grabbed her hand. A hard shudder ran through her, and when he gave her a quick glance, he saw that her lips were a tight, pale line while she stared at the road. Then she took a deep breath and turned her hand in his until she could hold it properly.

Her grip was tight, almost desperate, and she didn't let go of his hand until he needed it to park the car.

*** *** ***
"I... I'll make hot chocolate."

Tony watched his partner vanish into the kitchen while McGee flopped down on the couch and pulled Abby with him. He had a feeling that neither of them really cared for chocolate right now, but it gave Ziva something to do and it was comfort food, so it wasn't the worst idea ever.

Abby curled up in McGee's lap again, her eyes so wide and scared that she looked almost as if she'd suck her thumb any minute now. Instead, she suddenly started crying, and that was when Tony fled and left them alone, going after Ziva because he just couldn't deal with his black sister not having a grip and that was what he'd taken McGee along for, right?

He took a deep breath when he closed the kitchen door behind himself. It didn't matter that Ziva was still crying. For some reason, it was easier for him if it was her. Maybe because he sort of knew how to treat her by now. Or maybe because she'd seen him at his worst and still allowed him to be strong for her every now and then.

She'd slipped out of her jacket and let it drop to the floor, right in the middle of his kitchen, and for a moment he looked at it as if he'd never seen it before. Then he stared at her back instead, how she stood there with her shoulders stiff and her hands pressed against the counter so they wouldn't tremble. She'd only managed to open the cocoa package before her control had slipped, and he knew how she felt, knew what ripped her up inside because it was even worse for him. He just hadn't allowed it to take over yet.

Her head fell forward, and that was when he moved, coming up to her and grabbing her shoulders and pressing against her back so she would feel him and maybe safer and a bit grounded, and yeah, of course he had her six and that was all just for her, right?

She made a soft sound deep in her throat, and he wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her close, but while he was still fighting down the urge because he wasn't sure if she would allow it, she already turned and faced him and put her hands to his chest. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and the useless words of comfort Tony had prepared died on his lips, smothered by more fresh tears.

"I can't," she whispered while he raised his hand to cup her face again and wipe her tears away with his thumb. How weirdly natural this had become to him. "I can't lose y--"

She pressed her mouth shut and stopped the telltale word from escaping. His heart started pounding in his throat when the experimental thought of not having her in his life anymore snowballed in his mind and froze his insides, and he gasped and leaned into her. Her hand on his chest tightened, her fingernails dug into his flesh, and he wasn't sure later how it had started, but at one point he found that he'd pressed his mouth to hers hard. And that she was kissing him back just as desperately, with one of her hands grabbing his neck and the other clenching at his waist while his own arms came up around her and he pressed into her so hard that the edge of the counter must have been digging into her back painfully. But she didn't seem to care, she just kept meeting his mouth all hungry and the tiniest bit desperate, and soon all he could really think about was her warmth and the tension coiled up deep inside her, ready to shatter her any moment now.

He wasn't sure how long they kissed like that, breathless, desperate, drowning in guilt and responsibility and emotions and all the other things that had always kept them apart. Only tonight these things seemed flimsy and miniscule and not even worth a second thought. Because tonight there was something so much more important going on, and that something kept them together much more easily than it kept them apart.

McGee tiptoed into the kitchen at one point, probably around the time when she had wrapped her arms around Tony and clung to him hard. Or maybe a little later, when he had just pressed his face into the curve of her neck and ground out her name against her skin. He wasn't too sure, he just knew that Ziva turned her head and stared at the Probie, who was reaching for the pack of cocoa just then and took over the task they had abandoned in favor of a more physical comfort.

Tony blinked slowly and raised his head, but even though he braced himself for the curious look he expected to get, he didn't pull back and didn't let go of Ziva. Tonight, he didn't care what the Probie thought of him. Heck, tonight, he'd even yell at Gibbs and fight for his right to hold her.

Strangely, McGee didn't even seem to notice how they were wrapped up in each other's arms. Or maybe he did and didn't really care right now.

"Abby?" Tony asked quietly, and Ziva's arm tightened around him at the same time his hand cramped on her hip.

"Asleep, for now," McGee shrugged and poured hot water into four mugs. "Listen, you still want us to...?" And that was when Tim hesitated and glanced at them after all, and look at that, maybe sometimes the Probie wasn't quite as oblivious as he pretended to be.

"Yeah," Tony said, his fingers spreading against the small of Ziva's back as if he had done this a hundred times before. "It's fine. There are blankets in the closet down the hall."

McGee nodded and then stared down at the mugs he had just filled. "This--" he began and then broke off again, at a loss for words. And just like that, Ziva reached out and put her hand on his forearm, squeezing gently.

McGee stood very still for a moment, his head still lowered, lips pressed together tightly. And then, out of nowhere, he pulled himself together and straightened up and decided to be strong tonight, for Abby. "Okay," he said and picked up two of the mugs to carry them to the living room.

Ziva watched him leave the kitchen while her temple rested against Tony's cheek, and he took his time breathing in her scent and running his hand up and down her hip. And even though he knew there wasn't really a question about it tonight, he suddenly couldn't stand the thought of her leaving, of having to let go of her. Of her not being there in the morning.

"I need you to stay," he pressed out and then held his breath anxiously because the words made a tiny jolt run through her.

Then she pulled back slightly, and while she put her palms to his face and met his eyes squarely, he breathed out again because her eyes already gave him his answers.

"I'm not going anywhere," she still voiced it quietly, and he tried to say something intelligent in response, something witty, but in the end he just nodded sharply and kissed her hard.

*** *** ***
Later, he would never be too sure what else happened that night. He would only remember that Ziva spent it in his bed and that he made love to her for what seemed like hours and that it was more intense than anything he had ever experienced. And that it felt more like an extension of their new physicality with each other than mere sex.

She cried a couple of times, and at one point, he did, too, and that made her tighten her arms around his neck and murmur something she would probably regret in the morning, and he bit his lip and buried his face in her neck and tried not to let it show how much her words ripped him open and flayed him until he was all raw and tender and broken inside.

He was deep inside her and coming hard when he heard the cell phone go off in the living room, and they were still sweaty and reeking of sex when McGee knocked on the door and told them quietly they'd all been called back in.

And yeah, some part of him had almost expected that because this kind of night never seemed to end.

Chapter Text

His first reflex was to run and look for EJ, and Gibbs, being Gibbs, knew that his Senior Field Agent was rarely to be trusted when running on impulse. Correction -- Gibbs still believed his distraction would interfere with his work. His distraction would make him careless. His distraction would lead to more people bleeding.

The thing was -- and it felt strange that he only noticed it himself when he followed his boss's order without a heartbeat's hesitation and stayed where he was to take care of Cade -- most of this had been a mere reflex: going after her to protect her, because that was what he did, after all. Protect people.

He wouldn't have been all that distracted.

*** *** ***
He blinked when EJ ripped her arm away forcefully, refusing to let him touch her. For a heartbeat he looked down at his own hand, then he flexed his fingers and put his palm down on the sink.

He wasn't sure if there had been a single moment at which their liaison had come to an end, even though he was pretty sure it hadn't been the one just now. This was merely when he noticed it.

*** *** ***
The concern rose in Ziva involuntarily, and she wasn't happy with the feelings it brought along. She tried to force it down, but she only had little success. It was a reflex. And Ray, no matter how long she hadn't spoken to him, had been a friend and maybe a little more, and she had cared for him, after all. It wasn't an easy thing to turn off.

Technically, she knew that he was more than capable of taking care of himself. That he knew who he was dealing with. That he had the training and the quick mind to take on Cobb easily, if that man should decide to go after him. In theory, she knew all this.

And yet, when Tony looked at her from his side of the bullpen, she couldn't shake the feeling of dread that came with the fear of losing yet another friend, even when it was one who was no longer in her life.

*** *** ***
"I'm worried," she told him, and yeah, he couldn't really blame her. She'd been with the guy for months, after all, and it wasn't just grudges she held on to, it was loyalties, too.

Part of Tony urged him to feel a certain safety in that simple fact. To revel in the thought that this was the reason she would probably never be able to let go of him, either.

Mostly, though, he dreaded what he saw in her eyes, because even though she trusted him right now with her emotions, it was worry and concern that brought people closer together. Anyone who had ever seen an apocalypse movie could vouch for that.

*** *** ***
Comforting the woman was a reflex. Not one she had grown up with, but one she had adopted from her new family. She had learned early on that here, if someone ached, you offered your support, and you listened, and sometimes you even gave advice.

It is what it is.

The words that had been said to her several times over the years rang in her ears. They had been said so she would keep functioning. So she wouldn't lose herself in the guilt and the loss and the thoughts of what she could have done differently. Whom she could have saved.

It was a simple truth, but apt, and it told her that some things, as ugly as they were, just had to be accepted. It was a hard thing to do, but it was also something that could bear great comfort. The only kind of comfort she knew how to give without faking it.

It didn't seem to be the right kind for Special Agent Barrett.

*** *** ***
And no matter how hard she had just tried to reassure EJ that it hadn't been her fault, now she found that she didn't want to have her at her back. She really didn't trust her -- probably never would. And so she said the only thing that she knew to make the woman back off and give her some space.

"I am going to see my boyfriend."

*** *** ***
It seemed strange that the man who had come to DC at one point to tell Ziva that he was in love with her didn't look too concerned about the fact that she was in the hands of a serial killer.

"I know what Ziva is capable of," Ray shrugged when McGee, of all people, asked him about that. "And I don't think he kills women. He clearly took her as leverage."

It calmed the Probie, but Tony, at his desk, dug his fingernails into his own palm and tried to concentrate on his screen and the messages he was filtering. If he didn't do that, he'd probably snap and ram his fist into Ray Cruz's gentle, smiling, uncaring mouth.

'I know better what she can do,' he thought and carefully put his pencil down before he broke it. 'But she still got taken out, asshole.'

*** *** ***
Three a.m. in the fucking morning and he hadn't closed his eyes once. He'd just been sitting in the break room and staring at the ceiling and trying to sort the tiny cracks from mere shadows. And in-between, he'd asked himself how long this shit would take. How long Cobb would play with them and how long it would take until Gibbs broke the jerk and how, how long it would be until he'd hear that they had found his partner and that she was okay because she clearly had been just bait and that sick bastard didn't kill women, after all, he just killed Navy men. Right?

He blinked and turned his head, counting cracks and losing track and then starting over at the beginning.

*** *** ***
Her head hurt.

That was the only thing she could concentrate on, and it was so overwhelming that it even drowned out the incessant clapping toy and left her with something like white noise in her brain. She bit back a moan and tried to sit up, but that made a wave of nausea run through her and her head suddenly wanted to explode all over the straw.


She blinked back tears of frustration and put a little more of her weight to her back so the arm that had fallen asleep underneath her could get some life back into it. A prickly sensation shot up her arm, and she twisted her wrists to keep the circulation going.

She knew it was only a matter of time until they would find her. Cobb had made sure she knew that once she came back to consciousness, and it had confused her to see him almost caring in his reassurance. He was a killer, so why didn't he kill her?

He had looked just as confused when she had asked him, as if he had no idea what she was talking about. Then he'd blinked and taped her mouth shut and left her in the box, with the straw scratching her cheek and the duct tape tearing at her skin and the rest of the world going its own way.

Something rustled in the straw, and Ziva stilled for a moment, listening. Her nostrils flared, and she breathed in the scents of dusty straw and wood and rust until the rat moved on.

'A matter of time,' she repeated to herself. It felt hard to believe right now, but she knew that at least Tony wouldn't rest until he'd found her. Possibly Gibbs.


She closed her eyes and rested her head a little more comfortably in the straw and tried to remember why she had never learned how to ride.

*** *** ***
And then there was that moment when he felt panic rise in his throat because maybe they would be too late and they wouldn't get her back this time.
*** *** ***

He had no idea how she had gotten through the night mostly sane with this stupid monkey banging away beside her. He didn't even feel sane anymore, and he'd just been counting cracks.

And then she turned her head and winced while Gibbs's hands were all over her neck and poking and prodding her, and for a tiny moment she looked at him and met his gaze. Tony wasn't sure if he was the only one who saw it -- the only one she showed it to -- but there was clear relief in her eyes. She hadn't been so sure they would show up and get her out of this one, and oh fuck, god, she was still alive, she hadn't gotten her throat slit, she wasn't bled dry like a dead horse.

He blinked and tucked away his gun and stared at the ground because that kept him focused enough not to grab her and shake her and ask her what the fuck she had been thinking, right here, in front of everyone. They'd have time for that later, after all, when she wasn't concussed and dirty and bleeding anymore.


Oh, god. They'd really have time for that later.

*** *** ***
She'd been right about Tony. He'd come with the whole team, yes, and he did his job and searched the perimeter and looked around and only put his gun away when he was sure it was safe to do so. But there was one moment where she met his eyes, and for the tiniest moment his control broke and she saw how the last night had been for him.

Her hands clenched at her side while she rattled down her report. Gibbs kept touching her head and making her wince, and she wanted him to stop, even though she knew it was just concern that made him do it. And she found that she couldn't take his concern all too well, not right now, not when all she wanted was to curl up now and have To--

She breathed out slowly and moved out of the barn with her back straight and her legs stiff. Ray's hand was in her back, and she wasn't sure yet how she felt about that.

*** *** ***
It wasn't fair that he got to touch her when he hadn't been all that concerned about getting her back in the first place.
*** *** ***
She protested when Gibbs told them to go home and get some sleep because she didn't want to leave them again. Because she'd been ripped from her chosen family for a whole day, and in theory it hadn't been such a long time. But in reality, it had felt like a whole summer again.

And she didn't want to go and obey his order, because she had felt Tony's eyes on her more than once, and she had no desire to go home with Ray now, but she'd have to do that because it was what would be expected of her. She had called him her boyfriend, after all, and that was what boyfriends did, right?

It felt strangely wrong to feel so relieved when Ray got yet another call that took him away. Even more so when Tony offered to drive her home.

*** *** ***
They sat in the car for almost a minute after he'd parked it, silently, not looking at each other and not talking because neither of them was sure what to say.

In the end it was Tony who took a deep breath and let it out again and then asked, "Are you okay?"

She blinked and thought about that for another minute because she wasn't sure what exactly he was asking. "I'm tired," she said eventually. "And my body hurts."

His hands clenched a bit tighter around the steering wheel, and she turned in her seat and put her own hand over his.

"I'm okay enough," she said.

A tiny shudder ran through him, and then a bit of the ugly tension seeped out of him. "Good," he said and closed his eyes and pressed his lips together tightly, and she fought the urge to reach out and run a hand through his hair.

*** *** ***
She had assumed that -- in a childish sort of way -- it would be fun to watch EJ Barrett pack up her things and vanish out of their lives, but Ziva soon found that it unsettled her more than it brought her peace. Especially when Tony walked over to EJ's desk. She really didn't need to see that.

It was a coincidence that just then Ray came up to her and looked at her with his calm, guarded eyes and told her that he needed to talk to her. She didn't care much for more excuses, but she still snatched the opportunity to get away.

Later, she would find a certain irony in the fact that for a man who wanted to talk, he hadn't really told her anything.

*** *** ***
"Reeeally?" he said, and it was another reflex, one born out of a lifelong habit of flirtation and a certain level of intimacy. But it felt slightly off the moment it was out of his mouth, and the answer EJ threw him felt just as much like a mere habit as his own words. She knew he wouldn't call her, just as she wouldn't call him, and so he smiled at her and said 'thank you' and 'goodbye'. And then he walked away.
*** *** ***
She stared at the box for longer than seemed prudent. A weird feeling rose in her throat, and she wasn't quite sure what it meant. It wasn't anticipation, really.

When she finally reached for it and opened it to find it empty, she blinked at the strange sense of relief flooding through her -- relief, because she could never have believed the promise of a ring. Not when she couldn't even trust a vow of love.

She had no trouble at all believing in an empty promise, though.

*** *** ***
He watched the elevator doors close with something strange tugging at his heart, something that didn't really have anything to do with EJ Barrett. More like a certain chapter of his life being closed and filed away for further reference.

He blinked and sat down, and then he opened a new document to start his report. He didn't write anything for half an hour, though, and he only stopped his blank staring for a moment to wonder where Ziva had gone.

*** *** ***
His kisses felt wrong, somehow. She wasn't quite sure why, since he kissed her the same way he had always kissed her.

Maybe that was the reason, though. Maybe he had always felt wrong. Maybe she had just never been aware of it before.

When she stepped out of his arms, he opened his mouth to say something, but Ziva just shook her head and turned away from him. And then she breathed out.

*** *** ***
She looked a little pale around the edges when she came back to her desk, and for a moment Tony wondered what was going on. But just then Ray came up to her desk and leaned into her and said something into her ear that seemed urgent enough. It made her frown and shake her head. Ray didn't seem deterred by that, though, he just put a hand to Ziva's back and murmured something else, and did that man have no sense of self-preservation that he pressured the ninja like that?

Tony breathed out slowly while he fought the urge to punch Ray, hard, until he had a bloody nose and staggered out of their lives for good, and he didn't really care that with his training, Tony would probably be the one getting pulped. His knuckles still made an ugly cracking sound as he flexed his hands.

Then Ziva, bless her badass heart, suddenly turned her head and looked Ray in the eye, not frowning, not wavering, but goddamn annoyed. And then she said "no", loud and clear.

She pushed her chair back and got to her feet when Ray just kept looking at her all bemused, in the way one might look at an unreasonable child.

"I believe this is goodbye," she suggested, and while Gibbs pretended to mind his own business and Ray straightened and gave her a frown for the first time since he had arrived in DC, Tony picked up his pen and started scribbling side notes into his report furiously.

Because if he didn't, he'd just walk over there and grab her hand and drag her to any place that had just the two of them. Because he really needed that right now, even though it would have to wait for a little longer.

*** *** ***
"Come on. Lunch is on me," he said, and Ziva blinked in surprise and asked him if he was sick.

"Shut up," he muttered and tried to hide his smile while he dragged her to her feet and draped her jacket around her shoulders. "Just enjoy the moment."

*** *** ***
She enjoyed the moment enough to go for a hot dog, too, and while they strolled through the park together and she had sauce dripping from her lip and he had to fight the urge to reach over and wipe it off, some of the past week's tension finally seeped out of them. And then, at one point, when she had just glanced at him with a slight smile, he found that he could no longer follow their old ways of smoke and mirrors and playing it low, and so he raised a hand to rub his chin and said, "EJ is giving up her post."

"Oh," Ziva replied and stared down at her fingernails, and it was a careful sound that held a lifetime of hidden implications. "She is not going back to Rota?"

"She... decided to stick around town for a while."

That line brought a bit of her tension back, and just like that, her expression switched to wary and guarded. "Oh." The same sound, but not quite as non-committal as the first time.

Tony stared at her and tried to search her face for what was going on in her mind right now, and yes, he was confused, because for some reason he had expected more of a reaction. And then she suddenly turned her head and held his gaze, and whatever had just happened in her brain, it had torn down a few barriers and left her in the same state of fragile vulnerability he had seen the night Mike Franks had died.

"So you will keep seeing her," she said. It wasn't a question, and it tore something apart inside him that she assumed that, but he couldn't really blame her.

"No," he replied, and his voice felt weird in his throat, rough and sharp and not too good to work with.

He wanted to say more, wanted to explain that she had kept things from him, too. That she just didn't feel right anymore. That she wasn't his good thing, after all. But now his voice failed him completely, and he couldn't find the right words to wrap his thoughts into, like every time he had to talk about things that involved emotions. Or, well, the lack of them, in this case.

It turned out that one word was enough. It made Ziva's mouth relax and her lips twitch with the hint of a smile, and yeah, maybe she got him just fine, even when he didn't have the words to explain himself properly.

*** *** ***
It was strange how one simple word could make her breathe so much easier.
*** *** ***
They were on their way back when he saw her tense suddenly, her hands stilling in her jacket pockets. A frown formed on her face, and when he asked her what was up, she looked at him with an almost panicked expression.

He got it when she pulled the small box out of her pocket, and yeah, that was panic alright, choking him, too, and calling him stupid for even think--

"He gave you a ring? Jesus."

He couldn't help the words, couldn't help the scorn that crept into his voice, mingling with the sudden tightness in his chest. Just his usual luck.

But then Ziva handed him the box with a slight shake of her head, and her face wasn't all happy and girly-glowy, so maybe it wasn't necessary yet to fake support.

He took the box from her and flipped the top open, and yeah, maybe it was a really stupid thing to say, but he had never learned how to not torture himself. "It's empty." His voice sounded weirdly flat. "What now, he's broke and will give you one later?"

Ziva shook her head again and stared at her feet parting the grass. "He said it was a promise. To talk, among other things." She shrugged awkwardly, her shoulders hunched in suddenly. "But he never specified."

Talk. Talk was cheap. An empty box was even cheaper.

"Geez," he said, snapped the box shut and gave it back to her. "And you said I have crappy social skills?"

That made her laugh, at least, and when she turned her head back to him, there was something else going on all of a sudden, something he hadn't noticed coming up, and she suddenly gave him that look again, that look that said, 'I hear you'. The look that always got under his skin because in these moments, he just felt the same thing she did.

"I... may have made a mistake in my assessment," she said slowly, and even though there was the slightest smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, he somehow knew that this wasn't about him. And yeah, just then she blinked, and her eyes flicked away nervously while she dropped the thing into the silence that had been eating away at her. "I am no longer sure he is a good man, Tony."

'Oh, thank god,' he wanted to say, because he'd been fighting his gut so hard on this one that he'd been afraid of developing an ulcer. In the end, he tucked away the relief and the hint of gloating, and he just asked, "Why?"

She shrugged again and turned the box around in her hand as if there was something about it that she could have missed earlier. "He lied to me again, right after he gave me this."

"But you still took it," he said, and he knew he shouldn't have because it wasn't really his place. But there was that weird kind of disappointment rising inside him again, the tiny voice telling him that in the end, she was just one of the girls after all, waiting for a nice guy to come along and claim his territory and not patient enough for the right one instead. And he knew it wasn't fair to think this because Ziva wasn't really like that, but still.

Then she spit out harshly, "I didn't", and the barely hidden anger in her voice grabbed Tony's attention and made him frown. "He must have slipped it to me in the squad room."

Poor fool. He really had no idea what kind of woman he'd been dealing with.

"So you don't want to talk?" he asked, and there must have been something in his voice that gave him away because her head whipped around and her chin rose stubbornly.

"Not with him, no," she replied, and there was something final in her tone that hadn't been there before. "There is nothing left to talk about."

He watched her turn and throw the box away hard, aiming for a shrubbery part of the park where she'd never find it again. Oh yeah, she knew baseball.

*** *** ***
He saw her car parked beside his after the funeral, and that made him wonder even more why she hadn't been there. But then he saw her sitting stiffly behind the wheel, her fingers cramped around it and her eyes wide as if she'd just been hit by another car.

She didn't react when he knocked on the window softly, so he opened the door and bent down to look at her. And no, he didn't like what he saw. Pale face, hands clenched so hard around the wheel that not just her knuckles had turned white.

"You okay?" he asked quietly, squatting down beside her. When she didn't reply, he tapped her thigh with his fingertips to grab her attention. "Ziva?"

She turned her head inch by inch. Her eyes widened even more while she stared at him as if she had no idea what language he'd just used. "I tried," she said slowly, and something that looked like a lot of pain flashed behind her eyes. "I really tried to p--pay him my respects. I couldn't."

He put his hand to her thigh and rubbed it slowly, like one would calm an upset child, and yeah, sometimes that actually worked, even with her. Gradually, the frozen terror in her eyes eased up a little and she came back to herself. And then she suddenly bit her lip when a new thought hit her, and she turned her head away to stare at her knuckles.

"It's like burying Gibbs," she murmured, and yeah, he got that. He knew how hard it was and how it hurt and how it could rip someone open, even someone like her. Especially someone like her.

"Move over," he said softly and gave her a little shove to underline his statement. She frowned in confusion, and he shrugged, a little awkwardly, as if he had just been caught doing something he wasn't supposed to do. "I can't stay with you because I have a meeting later, but I can get you home safely and tell Gibbs you need a little time-out, okay?"

"I'm fine," she said with the tiniest frown because that was one of her reflexes. Because she was always fine. Because she had to be.

"Right," he snorted and patted her thigh again. "Scoot."

The frown she gave him this time was deeper and a little more on the exasperated side of things. When he didn't react, just looked at her expectantly and waited for her to move, she sighed and moved over to the passenger side.

He took that as her surrender to his superior, rock-in-a-stormy-sea method of caring, but of course he would never tell her that.

*** *** ***
He wasn't surprised at the names he saw in that file. Maybe his gut wasn't such a bad one, after all.

Heck, Gibbs would have a field day with this one. It was really a shame he couldn't tell him.

*** *** ***
She opened the door for him with her hair all wet and curly because apparently she'd just taken a shower, and fuck, that made him want to bury his nose into her neck and drink in her fresh, clean scent because there was only one scent more delicious, and that was Ziva right after sex. He blinked and stared at her with a slightly stupefied expression, and for some reason that made her eyes light up and her lips part into a smile.

"Your meeting is over," she guessed correctly and moved to the side to let him in. She sniffed while she continued to rub her curls dry, and Tony smiled in return when her stomach suddenly rumbled loudly. "And you brought dinner. I like you."

"Yep. That's me, Anthony DiNozzo. Bribing women since 1982."

She tilted her head to the side to watch him more closely while he held up the boxes labeled in Chinese. "You were fourteen then."

"Yep," he nodded again and gave her a grin that almost touched his ears.

"Huh," she simply said, but the corners of her mouth twitched in amusement, and it was easy to see that tonight, she really liked him. "Should I be interested in that story?"

"Oh yeah. But I'm not gonna tell it to you."

Of course she rolled her eyes. But when she closed the door behind him and he wandered over to her couch, he heard her chuckle.

*** *** ***
"So," she said and licked chocolate ice cream off her spoon with a cat-like, rumbling sound of content. "You're not just here to share your food."

He blinked and looked at her, how she was sitting on her couch at an angle so she could face him, her back against the arm rest, her legs crossed comfortably. His pulse picked up a little speed, but he covered it by leaning over to her and dipping his own spoon into the bucket.

"No," he said, and even while he hummed around his ice cream and let the chocolate melt on his tongue, he met her eyes and saw a certain wariness rise in her expression. He sighed and turned to really face her, his arm coming up on the back rest while he pulled up one leg on the couch. "That meeting today--"

He broke off, and Ziva tilted her head, settling more comfortably against the arm rest. One of her toes brushed against his shin on the couch, and she moved it slowly, back and forth, almost like a caress.

"What about it?"

"It's something I can't tell you about," he said. He saw the immediate annoyance rise in her eyes, and he leaned closer to her, touching her knee. "I'm not even allowed to say it exists, Ziva. But I still need to tell you that this will change a few things. And it might lead to me not acting quite like myself for a while." He waited until that part had sunk in. His thumb brushed the edge of her knee while she looked at him quietly. "But I'll still be me, and I need you to know that, okay?"

She frowned, which looked funny because she tried to smooth it over at the same time and didn't quite succeed. "Does this concern our team?" she asked slowly, and he shook his head. It wasn't a lie, because they had never been a part of the team in the first place.

"Okay," she said eventually, but even while she scooped up another spoonful of halfway melted ice cream, he saw the gears turning behind her forehead. Suddenly, she blinked and looked at him directly again, and he almost flinched because he suddenly felt so caught and guilty even though there was no reason for it. "Why are you telling me this?"

Okay, so maybe there was a reason.

He stole another lick of ice cream and tried to be calm, tried to think of a way to phrase this without sounding pathetic and clichéd and... well, needy.

"We said we wouldn't keep secrets anymore, right?" he said eventually. His cheeks burned suddenly, and he had to cover it with another careless little shrug that fell apart by the time he met her eyes. He hadn't planned on it, really, but when he opened his mouth this time, it felt like the right thing to say. "I don't want my promises to be empty."

Ziva took a deep breath and let it out again just as slow, and for a moment she looked at him wide open and shaken to the core.

"It's not the only reason you are here," she said then, and there was that damn panic once more, choking him, incapacitating him, because she was reading him like an open book, again.

This was the moment of truth, the moment where he had to pay back some of what she had shown him of herself. The moment where he had to open his chest and pull out his heart and hand it to her and hope that she wasn't South American enough to sacrifice it on an altar and dance around it. He stared at her, frozen, panicked, and she tilted her head again. Damn that woman, really. Why did she have to develop a patient streak now, of all times?

"No," he pressed out. "I want this to work, Ziva."

"Work how?" The question was still quiet, curious. Not mocking him, so that was a good start.

It was, in fact, a better start than they had ever had before, and when he met her eyes, he saw something new flicker there suddenly. Something that loosened the iron claws around his chest and let him breathe out slowly, because it seemed that he hadn't been too far off this time.

"I don't know," he said, and before she could reply, his words kept rushing out. "But I'd like to find out. I know that I want you in my life ten years from now, maybe even twenty. And yes, I mean life, not work," he clarified hastily, anticipating her objection. He waited for her to close her mouth again, and when she did, he continued. "I'd like to try out if this works, and yeah, I'm pretty sure it will, but I know we'll need to figure out how, and if it takes dating you to find out how we can make the sex and the job work, heck, I'm... I'm willing to do that, too, okay?"

He watched her eyes widen while he stumbled over his own words in the end, running out of air and momentum and bravery. And even while part of him waited for her to laugh and crush him, he found that he suddenly breathed a lot easier. Who would have guessed, CI-Ray had been right about one thing.

Ziva just blinked at him for at least a minute, speechless, mouth gaping open a bit, as if she didn't quite believe what she had just heard.

"Okay," she muttered eventually, and this time it was Tony who gawked at her in disbelief, as if the mere notion that she should agree to have him in her life was completely out of this world.

"Okay?" And yeah, he had to admit, he sounded pretty dumb there, so it wasn't all that surprising that she suddenly grinned at him as if he'd just turned into a particularly untrainable, but for some reason still adorable puppy.

Ah, heck. Maybe she wasn't even too far off with that, because when the reality of her response sank in and a smile distorted his own face, he certainly felt like rolling over and wagging his tail for her.

Fuck. They were really going to do this.

She met his eyes with an amused sparkle in her own, and this was it, he thought. This was good.

"So," she said and smiled and licked her spoon. "Was this a date already?"

He huffed in indignation, mock-shocked that she even dared to imply that his dating skills were that low. "This wasn't a date," he said sternly. "This was takeout."

And she tilted her head and said, "Huh", and he asked her what that meant, so she shrugged. "If it's not a date, do we still get to have sex?"

His heart pounded faster in his throat, and he felt sudden, unexpected exhilaration rush through him. There was more of that playful sparkle in her eyes suddenly, and god, he hadn't even known how much he'd wanted to see this. How much he'd wanted her to look at him like that. With that wink in her eye and the slight smile and the look that was such a clear invitation that it grabbed his heart and squeezed and made him ache a bit.

This was it, indeed. This was the first time they didn't just have an urge to satisfy or a need to fill. Tonight, they simply wanted to.

She chuckled when he grabbed her ankle and pulled her down onto the couch so she only had her head on the arm rest, and she still smiled when he took the ice cream carton and the spoon from her and put both down on the floor. And god, yes, she even gave him that same sexy smile when he leaned over her and settled down on her body and finally leaned in to kiss her.

Her lips were soft, relaxed, and heat raced up his spine when she moved into the caress so easily, so willingly. There was chocolate on her tongue, and he moaned at the way it enhanced the sensation. His hand came up to cup her face while she kissed him wild and uninhibited enough to loosen something inside his chest.

Her hand tightened in his neck, but she still drew back and looked at him with a somewhat surprised expression on her face, and he knew there was no reason for it, but it still made him nervous.

"What?" he asked, and she blinked, still surprised and the slightest bit distracted by something.

"Nothing," she said eventually. "Just feels right."

He wanted to say something, but just then she smiled at him again and ran her hand up his chest to open a button on his shirt, and he certainly didn't mind this particular turn of events.

Chapter Text

Of course Tony DiNozzo would have never openly admitted it, but this particular riddle had him sweating blood, and he was almost glad that two weeks into the new turn of their partnership they were still too busy catching up on all the sex they had missed out on over the years to give it some proper thought. And yes, despite the fact that Ziva had claimed to need more out of that scary-r-word-thing they had going now, she had soon developed a real taste for keeping him tied to his bed. (Not literally, though. Yet.)

That was, actually, one of the few things that had changed between them -- that he suddenly saw a whole lot more of her and that most of their playful fighting episodes seemed to end in sex lately. Most likely this was also one of the reasons there was suddenly a lot less serious tension between them.

He didn't mind that. (He'd be stupid to.) He'd just expected something like a relationship between them to be a lot more different, and the fact that there wasn't all that much adjusting to be done sometimes even felt a little unsettling to him.

He still wasn't quite used to the fact that she suddenly touched him so much more, no longer just to get his attention, but just because she liked to do it. And now that they were actually allowed to indulge in liking each other's touch, it sometimes killed him that she behaved so well at work. Especially since he knew how easily she crossed personal boundaries once they were alone. And once she started touching him these days, she couldn't seem to stop again. (Yeah, okay, so maybe that was the real reason she didn't do it at work all that much.)

Ziva liked sex with him so much, in fact, that she spurred him on to new heights. There were times when he felt almost challenged and like he was closing in on his limits, but he would never think about complaining. No, sir, he didn't mind at all when she gave him that certain look, the one that sent a tingle down his spine and told him to better get ready, now.

So yeah, they had kind of slippy-slided into this new dynamic between them, and so far it worked out so much better and so much easier than he would have expected. But there was still that tiny voice in the back of his head that kept reminding him of her words, about finding a more balanced approach to being with each other. One that didn't just involve sex and work. And on the days when he felt a little more insecure about himself and about what they had, he wondered what would happen if it should turn out that sex and work was all they had. He was ninety-nine percent sure it wasn't the case, but she was a girl who read Faulkner for amusement value, after all, so what would happen if they'd find out one day they weren't able to just spend time with each other and have a moderately good time doing it?

The dating idea never really left his mind, even on the nights when she stretched out contentedly on his couch and his lap and idly flipped through the channels while he let her have the remote and scratched her back. And the more he pondered about taking her out, the more he felt like this particular train of thought would open a whole new can of worms -- the one about the example her CIA ex-boyfriend had set. It was kinda hard to compete with skiing trips and fancy boots, especially since he knew how much Ziva had enjoyed this kind of attention. He didn't want her to suddenly start missing it and then blame him one day. He wanted her to stay amused by what they had, and on some days, when he felt particularly introspective, he went as far as thinking that he wanted her to be happy. And sometimes, he wasn't entirely sure if he'd be able to keep her happy.

So yes, Anthony DiNozzo, the man who had never before failed to come up with ideas to please a woman, suddenly found himself fretting. Over a date.

He knew that he put more strain on himself than necessary. That Ziva would most likely humor him, even if he didn't come up with anything fancy or spectacular and just settle for treating her with a dinner and a movie.

The thing was, he didn't want her to just play along. He wanted her to genuinely have a good time. And that was where things got complicated.

*** *** ***
Hey dad. You have a minute?

For maybe all of two seconds he had actually considered asking Gibbs for advice. Then he'd handed himself a headslap for the mere notion.

For one, a man who considered a good steak and beer a successful evening wasn't exactly what most women would consider grade A dating material. And then there was the tiny fact that Tony didn't feel ready yet to go head to head with his boss about this particular evolution of a partnership. Not while it was all still fresh and sort of fragile. Not when he wasn't sure how Gibbs would take it. Because this time, it was a lot more important to Tony what Leroy Jethro Gibbs thought about what he did with a fellow agent. And because this time, if his mindset ended up being the same even if it was Ziva he was involved with...

Of course, Junior. What's up?

So, the boss was out, and McGee -- he had never been in, really. Vance was not the man he could have this kind of heart-to-heart with, and Palmer... uhm. No. Just, no. Not when it came to real women, read: the non-freaky kind. (Breena didn't count. She was freaky on the inside.)

'What's up?' How young is this one, dad?

There was someone in his life, though, who knew how to really treat women, and despite his more recent track record with the fair sex, Anthony DiNozzo, Senior, had once dated his fair share of really classy dames.

Selina is a very lovely lady, Junior.

The answer made him snicker. Sometimes he felt like he knew his father a little too well. She'd probably made it barely into her twenties.

'Selina'? Are you going Bruce Wayne on me now, dad? he typed and ignored the thought that not too long ago he would have been incredibly jealous of his father's success rate.

What is it you wanted to ask me?

And really, damn this new honesty thing he had going with the people in his life all of a sudden. He had completely forgotten that his father and straight forward suddenly seemed to go together.

Tony sighed and leaned back in his chair. For a few moments, he wasn't sure how to phrase this, and apparently, enough of his distress translated that McGee shot him a curious glance.

I want to ask someone on a date. And I want her to have a really good time.

There was a pause at the other side of the chat window, and Tony rubbed his face and groaned inwardly at what was probably going on in his father's head right now.

You never seemed to have a problem with entertaining the ladies before, son.

He winced out loud this time, and that finally made Ziva raise her eyes and look at him with that little tilt to her head that she always had when she was puzzled by something.

Well, yeah, he typed, turning his full attention back to his chat window. This one's special and I don't want to blow it.

There was a longer pause while his father mulled that information over. I've found that the theater always work nicely, especially if it's preceded by a good dinner.

And yeah, maybe it would work for Ziva, too, but she knew him, and thus, she'd know this would never be his first choice of entertainment. And from there it was just a baby step towards comparing him to CI-Ray, to whom this sort of thing came naturally and who would have chosen something exactly like this for a nice, romantic evening and who would have enjoyed every minute of it without falling asleep.

I don't know, dad, he replied. She's not that easy to impress. She's... you know, a bit like mom was.

He wanted to take it back the moment he'd sent it, and he stared at the text with a slight panic rising in his throat that didn't lessen while he watched the seconds tick away without a reply from his father.

You know what, forget I asked. I'll figure something out.


He blinked and stared at the single word with a slice of rebellion rearing its head. Then he breathed out and did what his father wanted, just like he always did.

Still thinking.

Tony scratched his neck and glanced around to see if his desk was still clear. Sure enough, that turned Ziva's head his way again, and he gave her a quick smile that was meant to be reassuring, but only made her raise an eyebrow at him. He stared at the 'is typing' message and willed his father's fingers to move faster.

Your mother was always happy to accompany me to charities or award ceremonies or to the theater. She liked these events because they always gave her a chance to dress up and impress me.

Yeah, that sounded like Ziva, alright. She'd have a blast being all girly and sexy, just to see his jaw hit the floor.

I was afraid of that, he typed but just then his father sent him a new message.

But she was just as happy when we stayed home. She'd read a book or watch you play. She liked fancy, but she never needed it.

Tony stared at the text, blinking in surprise, and yeah, he suddenly remembered the Sunday mornings when he'd snuck into his parents' bedroom and crawled into his mother's arms. Her smile had always been something else on these mornings, warm and open and loving. He wasn't sure how he'd managed to forget that.

I'm not sure how this applies to your situation, though.

He could almost see the uncomfortable little shrug that went along with this line as his father realized how much he had just let slip. For some reason that made him smile.

I'll figure it out, he replied. Thanks, dad.

He glanced at Ziva and fought the urge to direct the full force of his smile at her. It didn't feel safe because this was the time Gibbs usually showed up, and any minute now--

"Grab your gear," he heard his boss's gruff voice then in his back, and that made it even harder for Tony to control his grin. "We have a contortionist held hostage at a Navy lodge."

With a sigh, he logged off and braced himself for one of those days.

*** *** ***
"What it this, Tony?"

He grinned at her with his most endearing smile and a bad flutter in his stomach while he sorted through takeout-boxes, took out theirs and passed the rest over to McGee.

"Depending on which end of the clock you're looking from, it's either lunch or dinner," he said and handed her a box and a pair of chopsticks before he reached into his pocket. "And a fortune cookie for my very favorite probie, of course."

He gave a tiny bow and gave it to her, and the look she shot him in return was a wild mix of irritation about him sharing food yet again and without being threatened first... and the clear promise to show him her appreciation later. And that, coupled with the thought of how she might react to his proposal, bunched up his stomach so hard that he felt almost nauseated for a moment.

"Hey," McGee complained behind him, going through the bag of leftover orders. "How come she gets a cookie and I don't?"

Gibbs voiced the snort they were all thinking, and while McGee stared at his boss with a frown, Tony turned around and gave him his most brilliant smile. "Told ya, McGee, she's my favorite this week."

Ziva snickered and watched him saunter back to his own desk. From the safety of it, he winked at her, and her own smile deepened for a heartbeat. Then she looked away and concentrated on her food, and he could have sworn that he saw a bit of guilt in her expression because he was so easily able to draw these reactions out of her these days.

Yeah, they both hadn't really gotten used to that yet.

*** *** ***
Part of him wanted to feel queasy about the fact that a case (and especially this one) had given him the idea for the invitation. For some reason he was pretty sure though that she would appreciate the irony.
*** *** ***
Ziva stared at the tiny note she had just uncurled, brows furrowing while she tried to make sense of it. It shouldn't have been too hard because this fortune cookie -- in stark contrast to its siblings all over the world -- had had a clear and precise message hidden in its belly.

He saw the exact moment she figured out that he had tampered with the cookie, and for a moment, the rocks in his stomach were back because he was no longer all that sure how she would react. Because for a moment, he was pretty sure that this was a very silly and childish idea.

Tomorrow at six, will you meet your man?

She blinked and read the line a second time. Then she carefully tucked the piece of paper away in her pocket. A slight smile played around her lips, and Tony was just about to breathe out again when McGee, old nosy parker who had learned too much from him over the years, asked what it said.

Ziva just turned back to her screen, though, without giving either of them another glance.

"It promised me dessert," she said, her lips twitching in amusement.

He was willing to take that as a yes.

*** *** ***
He slept in the next day, and that gave him a few interesting dreams that made him wake up with the image of Ziva smiling in his head. It was a lovely image, and it should have been a good way to start the day, but for some reason it reminded him of the evening plans and thus, left him instantly nervous instead. He rolled over and buried his face in his pillow with a groan while his stomach knotted a bit more.

"This is nuts," he moaned into his pillow. His words were met with silent agreement.

And yes, it was nuts to obsess about something that would probably turn out to be a nice evening and certainly wouldn't make her pack up her stuff and leave him in a hurry. (It slightly jarred him to find that by now, she actually had stuff to pack up at his place.) She knew him at his worst, after all. And through all of it, she'd stuck with him. One date would never be a real game-changer for the two of them.

He still had trouble getting his breakfast down, and that had to be a first.

*** *** ***
It was his own damn fault, really. His own fault for insisting they do things the proper way, with neither of them staying over the night before, with meeting at the place, with dressing up and all that jazz. And yes, it was his own damn fault for spending the rest of the morning with getting a haircut and then hunting for the perfect shirt to wear, just because he knew that she liked to look at him when he was dressed up, too.

The rest of the day crept on agonizingly slow and left him a lot of time to fuss with his hair.

*** *** ***
"Hey. You got a table for two left over in that mess downstairs?"

The waiter, who reminded him vaguely of a younger version of Stan Burley, turned around with a snicker, checked, double-checked and then made Tony breathe a sigh of relief when he said, "Yeah, the couple at seven is getting ready to leave. You got a few minutes?"

"Sure." Tony sat down at the bar and mentally prepared himself for more than just a few minutes.

He let his gaze skip over the room and took in the chattering crowd. When he'd first stumbled over the place, it had been a lot less busy. Granted, it had been a Tuesday then, but he still hadn't expected this. "Didn't realize I should have called ahead."

"Saturdays," the waiter shrugged. "We're always packed then."

"The live acts?" he suspected.

His question was met with a quick grin. "No, man. Same reason you're here." Tony blinked and stared at the man with a slight frown until the guy laughed. "Dates. Lots of them happening right now."

"Ah." Tony picked at a button of his shirt, frowned at himself and then forced his fussing hand down onto the bar with a grimace. "Can you ease over the waiting with a scotch?"

"Sure." The waiter shot him another grin while he poured his drink. "First date?"

"Sort of," he replied and had a fleeting thought of coffee and pizza in the rain, six years ago. When he raised his head, he found the younger guy stare at him with an amused smile. He made a face again. "That obvious?"

"Aside from the hair and the way you just scream squeakin' clean? Yeah, classic first date jitters going on at your end of the counter."

Tony laughed nervously and downed his scotch. The liquid warmth un-knotted his stomach a bit, and he shot a glance at his mirror image behind the bar. Not too shabby. Off-white shirt with the two top buttons undone. Dark blue jeans because yes, he knew by now that Ziva liked him a lot better in these than in suits. A few errant strands of hair, but nothing that would really spoil the overall impression.

He raised his glass and shook it until the ice cubes clinked softly. "One more?"

"I dunno. I think you wanna be sober for this one."

For a moment Tony frowned, but then he saw the amused sparkle in the waiter's eyes, and the man's smile turned vaguely intrigued. He gave a small jerk with his chin, and yeah, yeah, Tony got it, apparently Ziva had made her entrance and he'd missed the best part of the show.

He turned around and followed the waiter's gaze. And then he breathed out very slowly because he had missed a good entrance.

Oh, yeah. That was his date, alright.

*** *** ***
The food was good. The wine was perfect and rolled down his tongue smoothly. The music was soft and loungy and fit perfectly with the cozy, not-too-modern atmosphere of the place, and all of that made him relax gradually.

That, and Ziva's smile. These were the only details he would later be able to recall because his whole attention was drawn to his partner, in her soft purple dress with the lace trimming and the bare shoulders. Ziva, with her sandals that had just enough heel to show off her incredible legs. Ziva, with her hair flowing loose around her shoulders and her face barely touched by makeup, just enough to make her eyes sparkle. God, he had wasted too many years not looking at her the right way.

*** *** ***
They talked, too. Skipped from one topic to the next and barely skimmed work this time, as if they were both too aware of the fact that this was supposed to be something on the side, something that wasn't touched by their everyday lives.

Eventually, they ended up talking about other dates, bad ones in general, first ones in particular. In the middle of her fettuccini, she told him how she had lost her virginity, and it didn't surprise him all that much that the story involved a tank and a stack of stolen landmines. He told her about the embarrassing agony that had been his first date in return, which had come two months after he had lost his virginity. They both skirted carefully around their more recent dating experiences, but they still agreed that there hadn't been enough good ones to balance out the bad ones.

Later, though, when Ziva got her dessert and let the first spoonful of chocolate mousse melt on her tongue, she was willing to admit that this one looked pretty promising so far.

*** *** ***
He watched her lick her lips and chase the last remnants of espresso flavor, and while he leaned back in his seat, smiling, she looked up and noticed how he looked at her.

For some reason that made a blush creep up her cheeks, and he laughed and tapped his index finger to the back of her hand.

Her smile deepened. So did the blush.

*** *** ***
Later, when he'd picked up the tab and she took her jacket and moved towards the door, he told her to wait and put his hands to her shoulders. Then he turned her around and gently steered her towards the back area of the café instead. She glanced back at him over her shoulder, curious, and he ducked his head and hid behind a smile because this was the part he was still unsure about, despite all the thought he had given to it. He slid his hand to the small of her back, and she leaned into him out of reflex with her hand brushing against his thigh. And there was that idiotic nervousness again that left him all fidgety and threatened to turn him into a goddamn teenager.

"Tony," she said softly, and there was something in her voice now. Not quite an edge, more like she was sorry to put him through this. Because yeah, she knew him, and she read him like an open book now just like she always did. And so, of course, she also knew that his pulse was going a mile a minute right now, and this time it wasn't just because she was so close to him.

"Relax, Ziva," he replied, and sure enough, her eyebrow went up as if she was about to say 'Me?'. "This was just the appetizer." He paused, pondered that phrasing for a moment and then added with a quick grin, "Literally."

She laughed at the word play, all soft chuckle and flowing hair, and when she stopped walking to lean into his embrace, he sighed contentedly and lowered his head to press a quick kiss to her neck. "They're not just a café, you know. They have your real dessert, too."

That made her turn a bit more so she could search his face better, but he just gave her a little shove to get her moving again.

*** *** ***
He was back to holding his breath when they rounded the corner of the dividing wall. Ziva didn't notice his sudden tension, though. She was too busy staring at rows and rows of shelves.

"A... bookstore," she said eventually, surprise ringing in her voice, and Tony breathed out and wrapped an arm around her waist.

"Yeah," he murmured, and she turned to face him. The strange glow of excitement suddenly shining in her eyes almost made him laugh. Instead, he pulled her a little closer and pressed another quick kiss to her lips. "Tonight's on me," he murmured while she wrapped an arm around his neck and his tightened around her waist in return. "Go, explore, read. Take your time, you have all night to pick what you want."

Ziva blinked and stared at him, and her loss of speech would have given him bad jitters again if her eyes hadn't been as wide and she hadn't looked at him with the worst case of affection he had ever seen on her.

"You're seriously taking me on a date in a bookstore?" she asked eventually, her disbelief blooming into new heights, and he laughed and brushed his lips against her cheek.

"They have a Hebrew section."

Her arm tightened around him, and for the moment she leaned into him from head to toe, Tony smiled against her neck.

Oh, yeah. Apparently he still knew the way to a girl's heart.

*** *** ***
She did take her time, and it amused him that he soon found her in a corner that had a comfortable two-seater, several chairs and a coffee table. She took up less room than the books she had piled up all around herself, and she barely looked up when he put down a large cup of her favorite tea. She did tilt her head back and kiss him when he asked her to, though, and yes, she smiled against his lips, and that sent his stomach into flutters all over again, only this time in the good way.

She was already lost in her current pick again by the time he pulled up a chair beside her, but facing the opposite direction so it would be easier to sneak a glance at her every now and then.

*** *** ***
The funny thing was, it should have bored him to death. Watching a girl read books? Not his first choice in prime time entertainment. (Unless, maybe, there was dirty literature involved.)

But the truth was, he wasn't bored. He found (and that was a fact he had known for a while, actually, he had just managed to ignore it for almost as long) that he simply liked being with Ziva, even when her attention wasn't focused on him. And yes, it felt vaguely strange at first to just sit there and leaf through some magazines and sometimes bring her refills and sort away the books she didn't like, but it was still good and easy and something he liked doing, just because.

Later on, he dug out his headphones and busied himself with watching 'Tarantula' on his cell, because even this small, a Jack Arnold classic never failed to engross him.

Every now and then, he found himself looking up and sneaking a glance at Ziva. Sometimes the glance turned into a longer study of her profile and her oh so kissable mouth. And sometimes he even lost himself a bit in watching her, and it was only the sound effects blazing in his ears that pulled him out of it.

It didn't take long until her hand found his on the armrest, and while she let her fingertips trace his wrist and the back of his hand absentmindedly, he went back to 'Tarantula' with a smile tugging at his lips.

*** *** ***
When he looked up from the end credits, he found that this time it was Ziva watching him, and from her expression it looked as if she'd been staring at him for a good while.

"What?" he asked, popping out the headphones.

A soft smile played around her lips. "You know," she mused, leaning closer to him across the armrests, "dates are supposed to be fun for all parties involved."

"I am!" he protested. "Having fun, that is." She seemed tempted to raise her eyebrow at him again, and yeah, he probably wouldn't have believed himself, either. He gave her a slightly crooked grin and turned his hand on the armrest so he could take hers and bring it up to his lips. "I know, right?" He shrugged, a little awkwardly, and to hide the sudden flutters in his pulse, he pressed a quick kiss to the back of her hand. "But I swear, I'm having a good time."

She tilted her head to the side again and searched his face, and he wasn't sure what exactly she saw in his eyes. Whatever it was, it made her lean towards him and kiss him.

He sighed against her lips, and for a moment she indulged in the soft caress, meeting his mouth and parting her lips to taste him. He was almost sorry when she pulled back, because yeah, they were among people and all, but that short kiss had been so full of promise that he ached a little now.

"What was that for?" he asked, his face breaking into a smile, and Ziva blinked as if she had to gather her thoughts. Then she snapped the book shut she'd been leafing through and picked up two others from her various piles.

"I'll take these," she said. "Let's put the others back and go home."

He stared at her, slightly confused. "Are you sure? There's a guitar player over at the café later, pretty sure you'll enjoy him."

She met his eyes, still smiling, still so kissable that he had to really remind himself they weren't alone right now.

"I have no wish to see him naked," she said softly, and his face fell a little because he hadn't expected her to end the evening so soon.

Then his brain caught up with all parts of her sentence, and just like that, the butterflies were back.

*** *** ***
He woke with a start and found that he couldn't move his right arm, partly because it was half asleep, partly because Ziva's head was resting on his biceps. Her hand came up to touch his chest, and he sighed at the calming gesture and let his head fall back against the pillow. Then he turned his head and looked at her, and god, that was quite an expression on her face right now, relaxed, sleepy, and maybe even a tiny bit glowy.

He rolled to his side and used the arm she was laying on to pull her into an embrace, and she went with the movement so easily and effortlessly that he felt something in his chest tighten. Her arm curled around his waist while her body settled firmly against his, and he hummed in appreciation when he felt her all naked and warm. He loved the fact that she liked to sleep bare and he could feel her like this first thing in the morning. It wasn't even a sex thing. It was about the pure sensation of it, of the incredible feeling of skin on skin. Like silk sheets. Served no higher purpose whatsoever, but dammit, he loved to feel them on his skin.

"I like waking up with you," she chuckled into his chest just then, and he felt like grinning because he knew what she usually got out of these mornings. It had been another surprise for him that her intentions were usually a lot more sex-laden than his right after waking.

"So that was the look I just saw?" he asked and leaned over her to rub his face into her neck because he knew how she usually reacted to that.

She gasped when his stubble pricked her skin, but for some reason she still pulled back to look at him, and the hint of foreplay slinked back into a mere pleasurable sensation before it had a chance to take off. Her expression was suddenly thoughtful, and he blinked, not quite sure what to make of her mood today.

"You surprised me last night," she said eventually, and the insecure, childish part of him urged him to turn this into a crude joke about his performance. It took a bit of an effort to keep his mouth shut and just kiss her instead, and she sighed and rubbed her body against his in a way that was clearly meant to incite interest.

This time, though, she had gotten him thinking in return, and he pulled back and searched her face while he stroked her side slowly. "So," he said, and then he had to clear his throat before he could continue. Damn. He really hated it when this side of him won out. The one that wasn't sure. "Does this mean I passed the boyfriend test?"

Ziva blinked at the question, and she seemed puzzled about the fake lightheartedness in his voice and the hesitation underneath. And he tried to tune it down, but the fact that she had to think about her reply before voicing it didn't help to ease his nervousness, really.

"I think we are both well beyond the age where we talk about girlfriends and boyfriends, yes?" she said eventually, and he frowned and pulled back a little more because that didn't really answer his question, it just tiptoed around it. She sensed his sudden tension and sighed, stroking his back slowly. "It wasn't a test. But it showed me that I, too, want you in my life ten years from now. Twenty, possibly."

Her eyes flicked away the moment she said it, and now he felt her tense up in his arms in return because apparently that admission had caught her by surprise, too. He had to grin, though, because yeah, it was a sappy thing to think, but he still got a huge kick out of his own words being quoted back at him, and out of Ziva looking so hesitant and soft and girlish all of a sudden that he just had to lean towards her and kiss her again.

Her tension melted away while the kiss deepened and his pulse picked up speed, but they still hadn't made it all the way back to the fun part of the morning, and so he drew back again and watched her face. She closed her eyes and ran her hands down his chest, and fuck, yes, he could have spent all week with her like this, just touching her and holding her and being close to her. He was pretty sure he wouldn't get tired of this any time soon.

"Could we..." she said and then broke off and took a deep breath. It made him raise a hand to stroke her cheek, and she turned into the caress with a soft sound of approval. But then she raised her eyes to meet his, and he blinked, not quite sure how he had missed the detour into seriousland. "For the moment, could we keep this between us, Tony?"

He kissed her again, and she made a tiny sound that probably meant she was quite ready to be distracted now, even though her brain was still rattling away and pondering heavy thoughts.

"Okay," he said cautiously. "But did I imagine that talk you gave me about being kept in the closet?"

She shrugged and curled up in his arms, and he suspected that she mostly pressed her face into his chest so she wouldn't have to meet his eyes right now.

"I know," she said with a sigh. Her arm tightened around him, and he ran a hand down her side until her skin tightened into goose bumps and she shuddered softly. And then she suddenly breathed out and said, "I think... I am not quite ready for everyone telling me what a bad idea this is."

He mirrored her sigh and turned his head so he could rub his face against her neck once more. "Yeah," he agreed, and even though he knew she was right, he heard the tinge of regret echoing in his own voice. And then he couldn't help himself, he had to know it, and it was important, so he clearly had to ask. "But it isn't, right? It's a good thing?"

Ziva pulled back and stared at him as if he'd just proposed to send naked pictures of them to her father, and her expression was so surprised that his pulse did a somersault in his throat.

"It seems like your brain is finally back to its normal ways," she said eventually, "if you can ask this kind of stupid question."

For a few heartbeats, he stared at her and met her gaze, and what he saw was a weird mix of determination and affection, both directed at him and at this attempt of a relationship they had going here.

"Right," he snorted and then rolled her over, going straight for the ticklish spot he had discovered not too long ago. The first of many, if he played his cards right.

Chapter Text

Ziva David was tense.

No, scratch that. She was long past tense and had already firmly set her foot into being irritable by the time Friday night came to its natural conclusion -- them leaving late.

The whole week had been like that. Three cases in a row, two of them overlapping and splitting up their forces. Twice they had only been able to catch brief naps at the lab. The nights where they actually got to go home hadn't been much longer, and by now even Ziva's stamina had been stretched to the limit.

She was actually relieved when Tony was the first to ask if she'd mind terribly. If they could just go home to their respective apartments and drop dead for the rest of the night. It felt a little weird, especially since she hadn't seen that much of him outside of work these past few days, and yes, she was not above admitting that by now her body had gotten used to somewhat regular sex and that the distinct lack of it played another part in her irritability. But Tony looked worse than she did, with shadows under his eyes and deeper crinkles around it than usual, and so she sighed and stole a very brief kiss in the elevator before she admitted that she probably wouldn't be able to keep her eyes open anyway, no matter what he tried on her.

She knew things were bad when he didn't even go for that and insisted that his ability to keep her awake against her will should be legendary by now. (He'd actually have a point there, but that was a thing she wouldn't admit easily.) He just hummed and leaned into her for the briefest moment, and Ziva closed her eyes and dragged her fingertips across the back of his hand.

*** *** ***
She slept eight hours straight without waking once, and that was so rare for her that she just stared at the clock for a moment, blinking and feeling slightly dumb.

Eventually she rolled to her back with a sigh and stretched languidly. Slowly the realization set in that today she would really have some time off -- they'd done good work and so there were no open cases left for now and they weren't on call for the weekend.

She groaned and stretched some more until her shoulders cracked. It made her feel a bit better, but the underlying tension remained and kept her somewhere between itchy and restless. It amused her to think that Tony would insist these two meant exactly the same. Today, she would've had fun arguing with him about that statement, but since he wasn't there, she rolled out of bed and dragged her feet to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She was still tense all over, and it would take a while until her body let go of the state of constant attention it had been forced into. Starting the day with a good, long run sounded very tempting.

While she slipped on her running gear, she wondered if she should bother to shower afterwards or just show up at Tony's place, all sweaty, pumped, and horny. He'd probably appreciate both variations.

*** *** ***
She hadn't expected to run into him as soon as she left. She also hadn't expected the relaxed grin that split his face, and no, despite her all previous experiences with him, she really hadn't expected that smile to go straight to her gut and leave her all weak and vulnerable.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, and she hated the fact that her words sounded so wary.

Tony, though, just kept grinning and leaned into her for a kiss that was quick and messy and so full of promise that her pulse stuttered for a moment.

"Picking you up," he said, and his arm went around her waist and kept her close. "And look at that, you're dressed perfectly for what I had in mind. All you need to pack is a toothbrush, a towel and a robe, and then we're good to go... actually, no, scratch the robe, you can do without."

The way his mouth curved was suggestive enough that she felt the first tendrils of excitement sneak through her, but she still blinked and frowned at him. Surprises always had that effect on her. Made her feel defensive.

"Pick me up?" she repeated, too aware of the fact that she suddenly sounded kind of... slow. She still wasn't used to this. To him treating her like this. To them going out. To him, surprising her. And to the fact that she may have hated surprises in general, but still couldn't help the weird sensation in her stomach that left her feeling all fluttery and excited. "What for?"

"You'll see," he simply said and then smiled at her some more, all wistful and lost in thought. When her frown deepened, he kissed her again until her forehead smoothed over and she was all breathless and itchy and not asking silly questions anymore. It took an embarrassingly short time for her to get there.

*** *** ***
"Wake up," he murmured, and his lips brushed her cheek softly. She still jerked awake harshly, despite the fact that she knew his sounds and smells so well by now.

She blinked and stared at him, for a moment confused that she had actually fallen asleep in the passenger seat. He'd told her to get some more rest while he drove, of course, but she still hadn't expected her body to obey.

"Are we there?" she asked and arched her back with a soft moan.

Tony didn't reply at first, just stared at her mouth, and that look went straight to her gut again and left her with an irrational anticipation. "Yeah," he said and smiled at her, that lazy, sexy smile he gave her so often lately, and just like that, one simple look turned into one of those moments for Ziva. The kind that made her skin tighten into goose bumps and left her close to freaking out because there was no way she could actually deal with all of this, right?

Her stomach dropped out on her, and it wasn't entirely in a bad way, just enough to give her a jolt, and it left her with a strange kind of uneasiness as she met his eyes. The kind of uneasiness you felt when change had snuck up on you unnoticed, and now you suddenly had no chance but to face it. And facing it didn't seem like such a good option because even if it was good change, it still took you away from the patterns and habits you knew and forced you onto a new path, into a new direction.

No, she really wasn't used to Tony looking at her like this.

He'd always had his eyes on her, right from the first time she had strolled into the bullpen all cocky and too sure of herself. He'd glanced at her with thinly veiled lust back then, and that hadn't changed much in the early days, simply because he knew she did the same with him and that they'd both deemed it safe because it would never cross a certain line anyway. It was their way of keeping each other at a distance, really, and even though she had been almost sure at which nights he had jerked off to a fantasy about her because he had always reeked of awkwardness the next day, she had also known that he would never try to find out if the truth behind the mystery would hold up to his expectations.

And then he had stopped fantasizing about her for a long while. His heart, not just his body, had gotten distracted, and by the time he'd been back to seeing her, she'd been with someone else, and that... well. It had led them to a place where every glance had seemed too much and too heavy and too laden with hidden meanings and barriers and missed chances. A place where they had tried to convince themselves that they didn't mean all that much to each other. A place where they had, both in their own unique way, utterly failed.

So now, despite the way things usually went, despite chance and probability and plausibility doing their best to interfere -- now she suddenly had to get used to a Tony who seemed to have no problem with tearing down his barriers all at once and leaving his heart wide open, and sometimes that scared her so much that she had no words for it.

She wasn't sure how to deal with this. How to handle the love she saw when he looked at her these days, because she still had no idea where that had come from. And because it always, always drew a response out of her, one of need and want and affection, and that, in turn, left her with her instincts screaming at her to run away from this before it would get ugly, before they turned on each other, before he betrayed her or she got him killed or crushed his heart or--

She forced herself to take a slow, deep breath and tried to stop her thoughts from cascading any further and straight into a panic attack, and something in his gaze shifted because he had, of course, noticed her moment of almost-freaking. He really noticed too much about her these days. And here was yet another thought that could spiral out of control very easily.

"Why are we doing this again?" she asked, her mouth twisting into a quick smile even though she suddenly felt shaken to the core.

"Because," Tony said and shrugged, and then he reached out and touched her cheek and slid his hand to her neck, his fingertips pressing against her skin softly until she relaxed again. He kissed her then, slow and soft and lazy, and no, she really couldn't get enough of this because he knew what to do with his mouth, knew it better than he knew talking, really. And yes, she had missed this kind of closeness during the past week. Had missed it a lot more than she felt comfortable admitting yet.

Her pulse jumped in her throat when he drew back again and his thumb stroked her cheekbone. "Because I'm selfish," he finished his reasoning, and she shuddered at the sudden intensity in his voice. "Because I want you, and I want you all for myself for a couple of days."

And there it was again, the smile that left her so easily vulnerable and weak lately. She stared at him and tried to focus, and of course she failed when he winked at her and opened his seatbelt.

*** *** ***
"Uhm," Ziva said when she got out of the car, and even she had to admit that her reaction lacked a bit of... enthusiasm. "A cabin in the woods?"

That didn't make it any better, but Tony still turned back to her, dropped the overnight bag he'd taken out of the trunk and came towards her with such a huge grin that she watched him, instantly wary and ready to jump. She expected him to say something or maybe just go the easy way and kiss her again until she'd forget about reminding him that they could have easily been just as secluded at home. But Tony didn't do anything except put his arm around her shoulder and drag her along without a word.

For a moment she had to fight the tension that rose automatically in her, and she felt his grip tighten in response. Then she sighed in defeat, followed his lead and only stopped to drop her own bag beside his.

*** *** ***
She would have to admit later that she hadn't expected the view she got when they rounded the cabin. Hadn't expected the trees to thin and give her a view across a lake that left her speechless for a moment, with all the fertile greens and golden sparkles and dragonflies. Honest-to-God dragonflies.

She breathed out again when Tony moved to stand behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. His lips brushed her cheek again, and that drew another fluttering sensation out of her.

"Not just any cabin," he murmured. His words left goose bumps in their wake, and Ziva forced herself to keep breathing and lean back against him.

"I see," she finally said, her voice small, and his arms tightened around her for a moment because he wasn't sure what to make of her response.

And that was the thing that made an irrational anger rise in her, not at him, but at their circumstances. Anger that what they had felt so good, and yet it was still so fragile and easily shaken. Anger that they'd used to get each other perfectly, without any words involved, but now, outside of work, things suddenly had to be spelled out and confirmed and reaffirmed. And yes, a bit of anger that there were feelings involved now, actual feelings, recognized and out in the open and no longer hidden behind a bad joke or a prank. Feelings that could get hurt.

"I like it," she said softly, and her thumb brushed his wrist, seeking to take some of the tension out of him.

His relief was an almost palpable thing, even though he tried to cover for it and leaned down to press his lips to her neck briefly. "There's a marked runner's trail starting about half a mile south," he murmured, and that was such a simple thing to care about that for a second her heart felt overwhelmed and close to bursting. She turned in his arms and pressed her mouth to his and kissed that big, charming mask of a smile until he was all breathless and horny enough to forget about the insecurity for now.

Tony hummed in appreciation when she drew back, and just like that, things had turned easy again, and his arms around her, his body against hers, that was the only logical conclusion to their tale. The only way to go, really.

"Told ya you're dressed perfectly," he sighed contentedly and picked at the collar of her shirt. There was a sparkle in his eyes suddenly that hadn't been there before, and she wondered what that was about. "Wanna go right now? I'll get our stuff inside and make the place comfy. And when you're done..."

His mouth curved in a somewhat suggestive way, and Ziva laughed and allowed her hand to wander under his shirt for a quick grope. "Will you fuck me then, love?" she asked playfully while her fingernails left a trail of goose flesh on his skin.

His eyelids fluttered, and he groaned. For a moment his arm tightened around her waist again, then he forced himself to step back.

"Devious," he muttered, his voice shaking slightly, and Ziva chuckled. He was so easy to unravel if she touched him just the right way, and it was a rush to see this happen again and again. She really liked having this effect on him, and she was far from tired of it. There was, after all, a lot left to explore here. "I was going to suggest a shower and then a late lunch. But hey, if you're a good girl..."

She felt the corners of her mouth curl up into a smile that was halfway towards dangerous, and she saw his instinctive response to it flicker in his eyes. "Tony," she said, her voice low and soft. The same voice she always used on him when she wanted him to fuck her. "You know how good I am."

He laughed shakily and took another step back, and while he turned and went back to the car, he raised his hand and wagged his index finger at her. Ziva grinned and followed him to grab her hip pack and a bottle of water.

*** *** ***
At first she'd felt weird about leaving him like that. It seemed strange to come here with the intention of spending time together and then wander off alone. But he'd told her once more to go ahead and better get some of the tension out of her system now, and by the time she was into her second mile she realized that his suggestion had actually been a perfect one.

The path was softer under her feet and better for her ankles than the concrete and asphalt she was used to. Each step thudded through her like a dull drum, thrumming in her muscles pleasantly and reverberating in her slow, steady rhythm.

In the city, she liked to push herself, liked to see how fast and far she could go in the short time she had before life would claim her again. Now she suddenly found her steps slower, striding out a lot more relaxed and yet, more determined at the same time.

It wasn't a race out here. It was something she could simply enjoy for the sake of it, and it came as a slight surprise to her that she actually did. For the briefest moment it made her wonder how many other things she usually did without taking in all they had to offer.

The air was different out here, too, less heavy on the lungs. (That part shouldn't have come as a surprise, really, but it did.) It didn't take long until she felt almost lightheaded, and so she stopped for a moment when the trail took a turn and she found herself at the edge of the lake. Birds chirped excitedly, not bothered by her intrusion at all, and she liked that. Liked that they kept singing proudly.

Ziva took a deep breath and filled her lungs with early summer warmth and the scents of vegetation leaping out of its bounds. She turned her head and saw a glimpse of the cabin in the distance, almost at the opposite side of the lake. She hadn't even realized she'd come this far.

With a smile she stretched her legs. Maybe she could bring Tony down here later. She hadn't gone swimming with him yet. She knew what his skin felt like wet, of course, but so far she had no idea what it would feel like to have him fuck her in the water.

*** *** ***
She was pleasantly tired by the time she got back to the cabin, up to the point of dragging her feet a little, and she couldn't remember when that had happened the last time. Her body ached in just the right way, letting her feel what exactly she had accomplished today, but not leaving her drained and worn out.

She sighed contentedly, and while she kicked off her muddy running shoes on the front porch, she turned and gave a last slice of attention to the incredible view she had from here. When she glanced down, flexing her toes, she found that her pants were also mud-stained, so she took them off, too. She was pretty sure Tony wouldn't mind.

*** *** ***
She wasn't quite prepared for a sharp curse and the scent of something burning, and it felt weird to have her instincts kick in like that, hard and jarring and far from the mood she had been in a mere minute ago.

She found him in the kitchen, in the middle of something that wasn't quite chaos yet, but still consisted of smoke and open windows and sizzling things that had supposedly been food at one point. Tony, with his left hand under cold water, turned his head when he heard the kitchen door open, looked at her and grimaced.

"Lunch will be really late," he informed her wryly, and his eyes flicked back to his hand while Ziva stood in the doorway slightly dumbfounded, blinking and staring at him in disbelief while it slowly -- very slowly -- sank in what she saw here: Tony, in the kitchen, cooking for her.

Well. Trying to.

She opened her mouth to say something, but for some reason she suddenly found herself speechless, and so, of course, she saw his shoulders tense soon in equally mute response.

Eventually he shrugged and glanced back at her with a quick grin just this side of awkward. "That's what I get for trying to make this disgustingly perfect, huh?"

Ziva met his eyes, and for a moment all she saw was the misery of a teenage boy who had tried to impress a girl and was now afraid that she'd laugh and turn her back on him for the mere thought. She blinked again, and then her perception shifted, leaving her only with her man and good intentions and his almost desperate wish to get it right. And much like every other woman would react to this degree of dedication and affection, she suddenly found herself with her heart pounding in her throat and her pulse roaring up into a deafening drum.

He was frowning at his hand while she pulled her shirt over her head, and so he jumped in surprise when he suddenly felt her almost naked body pressed against his. He wanted to say something, but she didn't give him a chance, just rose on her toes and kissed him hard, and that shut up his mind and his mouth pretty effectively. His arms came up around her instinctively, burned hand and running water forgotten, and Ziva groaned into his mouth when his cold fingers hit her skin and rivulets of icy water ran down her side. Her nipples perked up and tightened in a weird sensation just this side of delight.

He pressed out her name through gritted teeth when her hand stroked his growing hardness through his sweat pants, and yes, sometimes she thought she had forgotten how to be patient with him, how to just let things happen. Sometimes it felt like every second lost with him was just that -- lost, wasted, irrevocably.

She bit her lip when he reacted to her urgency and his left hand, the cold one, slipped into her panties to cup her ass cheek. Then, without a second's hesitation, it slid a bit further, between her legs, coldcoldcold and yet going straight into her fire now, deep into her, and oh, yes, how she had missed this... had missed him. And his mouth and his arms and the way he rubbed her nipples just the right way whenever they were both turned on like this, just this side of painful, while his mouth plundered hers and his tongue stole her breath. She mumbled something that was maybe a curse when he pulled her up against his body and then pressed his hips into her, letting her feel his cock while he shoved his fingers deeper into her.

"Fuck," he muttered, and she had the urge to laugh because yes, that was exactly what she wanted here, so nice of him to agree. But she couldn't voice this because now he kissed her again, and then he suddenly moved and backed her up against the big oak table. Ziva moaned when he pulled his fingers out of her, and she could feel him grind his teeth because her protest almost undid him. But then he drew back, barely enough so he could strip off his own shirt, and yes, she approved of that, she really did, because his skin on hers was a good thing to feel while he bent over her and spread her out on the kitchen table to make a feast out of her. His mouth went straight for her nipple, sucking her while he pressed against her just right, and she gasped and pulled him closer.

For a minute he complied, rubbing his cock against her, and even through his sweats that made him shudder all over her with the sudden onslaught of sensation. Then he slipped his fingers back into her panties, back into her, and Ziva cried out and arched her back and dug her fingernails into his neck, because this, this was what she'd been craving all week.

"Yeah," he muttered and watched her reaction while he twisted his fingers inside her. "Yeah, come, like that..."

And Ziva moaned and closed her eyes, and yes, God, she loved it how he just knew how to make her come --how he had almost turned it into a game to count the many different ways he would be able to. But she knew that today, his strong fingers wouldn't be enough, and today his pretty mouth wouldn't be enough. Today, she needed him, needed him as deep inside her as possible, needed his weight on her and his hot breath against her neck and fuck, yes, she needed him hard. Now.

She shuddered again, and then she blurted it out, told him to just fuck her and not play around. He jerked hard in response, and she felt his cock twitch against her leg. Then his whole body stilled while his fingers kept moving inside her, kept driving her insane, adding fuel to her fire.

"Condom," he pressed out, his voice a harsh rasp, and the tremor that ran through his body made her groan and raise her leg so she could pull his hips closer to where they should be. He shuddered, adding, "Bedroom."

Ziva groaned and arched her body more, and right then, right there, she didn't care. She was on the pill after all, he knew that, and really, they'd had so many weeks between just the two of them now, this wouldn't really, what was he waiti--

"Oh God," she pressed out when he sucked on her neck and leaned over her, and she needed him, really needed to feel his weight, all over her, and-- "Please... Tony..."

His hips jerked against her, and she groaned as she felt the fight in him, his reasonable side warring with the desire to just shove into her and fuck her as hard as he could. She gasped when the move pressed his fingers deeper into her, and he froze again, his muscles tense and his body hot and his mind suddenly going a mile a minute, but still not gaining any ground.

"Ziva," he gasped, and his voice was so strained and heavy suddenly that it felt like a living thing against her skin. "Don't go ninja on me now, alright?"

He kissed her before she could answer him, and then he shoved his tongue into her mouth, and by the time he pulled back again she had almost forgotten his words.

"Why?" she panted, and he groaned and closed his eyes and rubbed his cock against her until she made a very, very undignified sound deep in her throat.

"Because I'm going to throw you over my shoulder now and carry you to the bedroom," he said, his face pressed into her neck, his breath coming in short, hot bursts against her skin. "And then I'm going to fuck you senseless, so don't hurt me."

She wanted to laugh, but he suddenly pulled back and looked at her, and beneath the heat and lust and need in his eyes, she saw a sudden seriousness that robbed her of speech and only left her with the ability to nod sharply, once, just that.

He mirrored the motion, and she was so lost in that faint taste of grown-up she had suddenly seen in his eyes that she didn't even realize he had been absolutely serious about his announcement. Then his hands lifted her up.

*** *** ***
Ziva put the last piece of pizza away with a satisfied little moan, then reached for a napkin and wiped her hands thoroughly.

"This was good," she sighed. She wasn't quite sure what she meant specifically -- the food, the comfy couch, the company -- and for a moment she felt like she should maybe clarify, but Tony, with her feet in his lap, just grinned at her without questioning her any further. Which was just as well because when she wriggled her toes she found that she couldn't have specified it any further anyway. She just knew that right now, on that couch in a cabin somewhere in the woods, she felt content.

She leaned back against the arm rest of the couch and ran her hand through her curls to untangle a few knots. They were still damp from her shower earlier, and she hummed when she remembered the feel of soapy Tony pressed up against her from head to toe. It had definitely been a very nice sensation.

Her robe gaped open while she worked her hair, and that brought the slightest hint of interest back into his eyes. He'd complained at first about her packing it after all, but when they'd ordered the pizza, he'd suddenly been very glad about it because Ziva had been faster and thus, the one to open the door.

"I didn't know they even delivered up here," she said. Her words ended in a little moan when his gently massaging hands moved up to her calves.

Tony laughed, a short burst of amusement that she had discovered long ago as being his equivalent of a blush. "They probably make a fortune, thanks to klutzes like me," he mused, and Ziva had the sudden urge to ruffle his hair. Knowing him, he'd probably think back to that spoiled lunch for a while, regardless of the very satisfying outcome of it.

"How did you arrange this anyway?" she asked, and he turned his head to look at her with a certain caution in his eyes. "I didn't see you pack any supplies."

"The landlady brought up some stuff because I asked her to," he shrugged, then grimaced. "I thought she was a nice old lady, but she really bled me dry for that extra service."

Ziva chuckled and closed her eyes while he kept working on getting the last bit of tension out of her muscles. If she were honest, she'd have to admit that there wasn't all that much left, but she enjoyed his touch too much to tell him. He probably knew it anyway and kept doing it because he enjoyed touching her.

She blinked her eyes open again and watched his profile while he still had his head lowered. His mouth seemed so relaxed right now that she longed to kiss him, if it hadn't involved moving. She figured she could easily spend hours with kissing him and not coming up for air once. He looked so incredibly focused right now, almost lost in what he did, concentrating so hard on Ziva and her reactions, however subtle, and for some reason that sent the slightest pang of panic through her again.

Then he turned his head and winked at her because he had noticed that, too, and she breathed out and returned his smile and tried not to be silly about this. It was a good thing that he got her like he did, after all. And it wasn't really all that new about him. He'd always, always known what was going on inside her. Only now she allowed herself to notice it, and that sometimes left her feeling like she had to keep her guard in even tighter check now. Which was strange, really, since being with him was so much easier now and, in theory, she didn't need to watch herself as closely as she used to anymore.

He turned his head again and concentrated on his task once more, and Ziva kept watching his face, so open and relaxed. So unlike the Tony she saw at work most of the time. Quite unexpected to see he had this side to him, too.

For a split second she tried to imagine how things would be if she'd no longer have that, and she found that she couldn't. Going back to how they had been seemed impossible, and she found that the mere thought of losing this new-found closeness was enough to make her throat tight with an even worse panic than the actual intimacy had provoked.

She forced herself to take a slow breath and let it out again, and then she flexed her toes and pressed them against the inside of his thigh. His muscles jumped in response under the fabric of his sweats. She liked how easily he reacted to her these days. Just letting it happen, not censoring himself, not hiding anything.

And with a start she realized that he alone was enough. That yes, even though they were nice things to do, she didn't need fancy dinners or the opera or even a movie to be content with his company. Her heart pounded faster suddenly, and before she could stop the words, they tumbled out of her mouth.

"You don't have to do this, you know."

His fingers stilled for a brief moment and he shot her a quick glance. "What exactly? Order pizza? Or rub your feet?"

She watched the smile tugging at his mouth, the one he always gave her when he was humoring her because he had no idea what she was talking about, and she found that right now, she didn't like that smile. Not when they were in the middle of... something. Something that may or may not turn into an issue over time. She needed his full attention for this discussion, even though the mere thought of a 'discussion' scared her, as Tony would say, shitless.

Mild confusion fought with equally mild interest in his expression when she pulled her feet from his grasp and moved over to his side of the couch to straddle him instead. His arms went around her easily, as if they had done this a hundred times already, but when she leaned closer and ran her hand through his hair, she saw something flicker in his eyes that echoed her own double-take whenever she noticed just how easy this kind of touch had become for them lately. It had always felt easy before, but they had also both censored the impulses to reach out. It wasn't the way mere partners were supposed to touch, after all, no matter how natural it felt.

But he had been the one to take this change easier than she had the whole time, and so the vague surprise in his eyes was soon replaced by a certain kind of sparkle, and that distracted Ziva from what had been on her mind pretty effectively and made her kiss him instead. It just seemed too easy these days to give into this kind of temptation, especially when he looked at her like that, and since she couldn't remember the last time she had liked kissing anyone so much, it usually wasn't much of a decision for her to indulge, now that she was actually allowed to do so.

He sighed against her mouth and leaned into the kiss, but despite the temptation to turn this into something more than a caress, she pulled back after a moment, and he complied and dragged his hand from her butt up her back, postponing dessert and waiting for what she had to say instead.

"You don't have to do this for me, Tony," she said, her voice soft, but so serious all of a sudden that she saw panic flare up in his eyes for a change. His body tensed underneath her, and for a heartbeat it felt like he wanted to shove her off his lap, so she put her palm to his face and let her thumb caress his cheekbone softly until he stayed put and kept listening. "You don't have to jump through loops to keep me."

Something else flickered in his eyes, and Ziva wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Then he blinked and didn't quite meet her gaze when he said, "Hoops, Ziva. They're hoops." He sighed in an overly dramatic way and shook his head while she rolled her eyes at him. "Seriously, how am I ever supposed to understand women if you--"

"Hoops, loops, whatever," she interrupted him impatiently, and he shut his mouth and stared at her, mildly surprised and out of words. "They're holes, Tony. And you understand me perfectly." She glared at him, and he glared back, and for some reason that made her crumble, and so she looked down at his mouth and just added quietly, "You don't have to be someone else for me. I like the regular Tony."

Her thumb kept stroking his cheek absentmindedly, and while she felt him staring at her, she tried to fight down the panic rising in her own mind once again. Tried not to run now just because there was the off chance she had misread him all these weeks.

She met his eyes when he didn't reply, and really, she was the one who'd spread herself wide open here, so why did he look so vulnerable all of a sudden?

Eventually he sighed and pressed a close-lipped kiss to her mouth, and Ziva touched her forehead to his.

"I know," he said, and his voice was so low that she barely heard him. "But I wasn't sure, okay?"

Ziva blinked and tightened her arm around his neck, and that made him breathe out carefully.

"I like what we have, Tony. And, more importantly, I like you, " she said. "You don't need to think of something else each week to amuse me because if the choice is up to me, I am not going to walk out of this again." Her words stumbled and faltered, rolling almost painfully over her lips, but she had to say them, had to make this clear to him. His arm tightened around her waist in response, and she was glad about that. Glad he did understand. "I am... what is that saying? 'In it to win it'?"

He half-groaned and half-smiled, and she figured that was good enough for breaking the tension, so she slid her hand from his cheek to his chest and gave him a slight grin.

"I should have never hooked you on American Idol, " he moaned, and Ziva chuckled and pulled back to look at him with a sincerity that was entirely fake.

"You are the one always complaining about my lack of pop culture."

"Not that kind of pop!" he muttered, and she laughed, and just like that, they were back to normal.

*** *** ***
Later that night, though, when their bedroom was almost dark and she was curled up against his chest, he kissed her, and it felt slightly different this time, with his arms all tight around her and something obviously going on in his head. When she asked him, he pulled back to look at her, and that bundled up her stomach into a tight knot because he was so serious all of a sudden, and that couldn't be good.

But then the tension bled out of him again, just like that, and he sighed and pressed a brief, very chaste kiss to her lips.

"For the record," he said, with his forehead resting against hers and his fingertips running up her side slowly, tease-tickle-caressing her. "We're not here because I'm bending over backwards to impress you."

"I didn't--" she began, but he raised his hand and pressed his thumb to her lips briefly to make her listen in return.

"We're here because we both needed a time-out," he continued, and the sudden seriousness in his voice went straight to her heart and chipped away at a hard place there. "And because I like Chesapeake and thought you'd like it, too."

He put his head down on his pillow and watched her in the dim light, still so serious, with a half-formed question in his eyes and willing her to understand his intentions.

And since it felt like she suddenly understood him perfectly, it was strangely easy to nod. "Okay," she said quietly and raised her own hand to cover his. He leaned closer again, and Ziva sighed and closed her eyes and decided that some things were maybe not quite as hard as she had thought they were. "And for the record, I do like it."

She didn't see his smile, but she felt it.

*** *** ***
She felt his touch even before she came awake, gentle, teasing, his hands sliding all over her while she was still mostly stuck somewhere between sleep and body warmth and soft pillows. She could tell he wasn't doing much better, but he was still mapping her body from memory, and she hummed because she loved it when he was like that, all sleepy and needy and wanting to be close. And she reacted to his touch, of course, just like she always did, with her skin warming under his touch and her pulse quickening and her legs spreading a little while his grip tightened on her thigh.

It was the fraction of a second in which her memory strayed, really. No more than a blip, but more than enough to steal her breath and freeze her pulse because suddenly she no longer felt the comfortable warmth of rumpled sheets, but rather the desert heat on her skin, heat and old dirt and the stench of sweat that wasn't hers.

"What's wrong?" Tony's voice against her cheek, no longer sleepy, but highly alert. His hand had stopped exploring her, and she felt his muscles taut, ready to jump at any given moment. "Ziva?"

Of course he would notice these things with her. She breathed in and fought with the roar of her pulse, no longer frozen in shock, but thrumming in her ears and deafening her. For a heartbeat she felt an irrational fury that she could no longer keep any secrets from him. She hadn't before, really, not when she thought closely about it, but now that she had let him come so close, it had left her all the more vulnerable to his perception, and sometimes he was just too good an observer.

And just like that, it all seemed too much to deal with. Too painful, too difficult, too much effort, and too much chance to fail.

Her throat felt tight, and her eyes burned when the urge to get away from him clenched around her heart. It was the last thing she wanted right now. And yet, she couldn't help it. Couldn't stay, couldn't face the fact that maybe this could be the one thing Tony wouldn't be able to take in stride. She could hardly deal with it herself on some days, after all. She jerked and tried to roll away from him, but she didn't get very far because he grabbed her arm out of reflex.

Such a simple touch. And yet, it held her back, kept her frozen in place, just like it had happened in a bar quite a few weeks ago.

"Don't," he said quietly, and she tensed at the slight warning that rang in the simple word. Her instincts came alive in a loud screech and yelled at her to shake off his hand and run because if she didn't, he'd make her stay and talk about this, and she couldn't do that. Not when she had spent so much effort on keeping this hidden away from her team and sometimes from herself. Not when she had worked too hard on forgetting all about it, about the dreadful summer itself and about all the things and lies and the betrayal that had led up to it. She'd worked too hard on pretending it had never really happened to spill it all now, to let it resurface and rule her life -- her normal life. The first taste she'd ever had of one.

She tried to breathe evenly and still felt her body dissolve into shivers and harsh, panicked panting because yes, he was a good man, and he was a lot stronger than she had given him credit for at times, but he was still too easily affected when it came to certain... things.

And yet, she turned her head eventually to meet his eyes, and her heart clenched at the suspicious shine she saw because it was too late, really. She should have known he already had a hunch about what was going on.

He took a slow breath, and she saw that he was torn for a moment between letting go of her and keeping his hand right where it was because he didn't quite trust her not to run. Eventually, he settled for propping himself up on one elbow and sliding his hand a little higher up her arm, stroking her gently while he eyed her cautiously. For some reason that made her remember her own words from the day before, her promise not to walk out of this again. Running away now would be just that -- shutting him out and keeping her life to herself, after all.

"You want to talk about it?" he asked carefully.

And damn his big puppy eyes, really. Damn the emotion shining in them. Damn his protectiveness that suddenly took all the fight and all the tension out of her and left her with only a bone-deep tiredness and the urge to curl up against him and let him hold her.

He looked vaguely surprised when she did just that, laid back down and buried her face in his chest. Still, his arms came up around her, very carefully, as if she might break if he touched her the wrong way, and so she wrapped her own arm around his waist to draw him closer.

"Not particularly, no," she said, and the words were slightly muffled against his chest. He kissed her cheek, so softly that she felt her eyes burn again, and she took a deep breath and filled her lungs with his warm and familiar scent. "But at one point, I will have to."

His arms tightened around her while he went through possible answers. It was a weird sensation, but by now she would have sworn that she could actually feel it whenever he thought furiously, just by touching him. She turned her face and pressed it into the curve of his neck, and he kept rubbing her back slowly until he finally settled for a somewhat neutral way to handle the topic.

"Are you still, uhm... seeing someone about this?"

She blinked, for a moment thrown by the question and wondering if he really expected her to answer it. She knew an honest answer was the prudent thing. She just wasn't sure if he actually wanted her to talk... and how he would react to it if she did. "Yes," she finally replied, and it was strange, really, but some of the tension left their embrace then, even though it wasn't his body she felt relax. "But not as often as I used to."


"I'm... making progress," she said, and what she really wanted to tell him was, since we tried this thing out between us, but that was, of course, out of the question. "It's slow work. I... seem to have a habit of running from unpleasant things instead of facing them."

He chuckled when he felt her grimace against his chest. "Gee. If you hadn't told me..."

She pulled back enough so she could raise her head and look at him, and she took great care in showing him an almost perfect mock-up of her stern ninja glare. "Well, I stopped running from you, " she said, and he huffed and puffed for the sake of the argument.

"Since when am I an unpleasant thing?" he asked, so much righteous indignation ringing in his voice that she cracked and laughed.

He kissed her to shut her up then, and that was nice, and so it didn't take long until she relaxed into the caress, as easily as she always did. But his mind was still at work, and he was the one to break the kiss again, not too long after he had started it. His hand came up to her cheek, and then he suddenly looked at her so seriously that Ziva felt her throat constrict and her heart hammer away at what was about to come.

"You need to tell me how you want me to react when this happens, okay?" he said, and she felt her eyes burn again because nonono, she certainly didn't want to do that because she simply didn't want this to happen again. She just wanted it to go away so she wouldn't have to deal with it anymore, and that wasn't just a pretty illusion, it could happen, right? She'd done so well these past weeks, he'd distracted her so good from her mind's silly detours into memory, so maybe--

She blinked rapidly, not willing to give in, not willing to break just yet. But holding back didn't work too well, either, because Tony didn't make this go down any easier, he just kept staring at her and willed her to acknowledge his request.

Eventually, she raised her hand and pressed it to his chest, right where his heart was, and he took a slow breath, still holding her gaze. I love you, she wanted to say, but she couldn't, of course, not when he was awake and looking at her like that.

"You're doing fine," she said instead, and there was a slight waver to her voice, yes, but all things considered she did okay, too.

He sighed as she dragged her hand down his chest and mirrored Tony's pose, on her side, with one arm raised high to put her head on it. Her fingernails left a trail on his chest, and she felt a soft shudder run through him at her touch. It made her smile that even while he was thinking so hard, he couldn't help getting distracted.

"Did this ever happen with Ray?" he asked suddenly.

Her exploring hand stilled on his body, and Ziva blinked, feeling as if she'd just run into a wall. She wasn't sure where that question had come from, and she wasn't sure, again, if he really wanted an answer to it. "Twice," she replied hesitantly. "But he didn't notice."

For a moment Tony just stared at her, stupefied. "What?"

She shrugged and ran her fingertips down his side and back up again. She loved how soft his skin was there. This was a thing she wanted to concentrate on, not the unpleasant sensations of the past. "You heard me."

"Jesus, Ziva, how can a guy not noti--"

"Do not do this, Tony," she interrupted him and settled her hand firmly on the curve of his hip, pressing down once to get his attention. "It's not like he missed crying and screaming. These... episodes -- they rarely last long. And he didn't know me well enough to feel the difference between one of these and normal tension during sex."

He opened his mouth to object heatedly, then noticed her expression and wisely closed his mouth again. Ziva sighed when she saw his jaw clench hard. "Keep in mind that this made some things easier for me, too. Talking about the ways in which I am... damaged..." Her voice trailed off, and her gaze flicked over his chest so she wouldn't have to meet his eyes.

He didn't even make an attempt to speak this time. He just grabbed her face and kissed her hard, stealing her breath and her resistance away and making her head spin with this most simple act of affirmation. When he eventually let go of her, he was breathing hard, and she saw a mixture of anger and protectiveness swirl in his gaze.

"You're not damaged," he told her firmly, and she wanted to laugh and pat his cheek and tell him that it was nice of him to say this, but she knew it was a gentle lie. Tony just stared at her, though, frowning and willing her resistance down until she was ready to listen to him. "You're... weathered, that's all."

Blinking didn't help this time, but he kept quiet and didn't comment when a single tear rolling down her cheek. He merely kissed her again, and that was that, everything important said and done.

Her hand tightened on his hip again, and right then, she wanted him so much it hurt almost physically. She returned his kiss, and her fingertips took on their previously interrupted journey all over his skin once more, sliding down his thigh under the sheets and back up again, with her thumb brushing the inner curve of his hip, teasing that most sensitive spot until his breath hitched in his throat and he couldn't fight the reaction to her exploration any longer.

"Sorry," he muttered and cleared his throat, and Ziva chuckled because yeah, the eager tension in his body was suddenly hard to ignore.

"Mmmhm." She hummed low in her throat and slid his fingertips down his hip and lower, teasing his cock until his eyes fluttered shut. "What for?"

His breathing grew slightly irregular, and she felt the sudden rush of lust that fought with his mind because mere moments ago they had talked about trauma and damages. She kept stroking him slowly, though, because she needed him to understand that he was right in his choice of words -- that she was weathered by the things that had happened in her life, but that they hadn't killed her desire to be with him, not in the long run.

He didn't answer her playful question, just arched into her hand involuntarily while she stroked his cock slowly, slowly, almost lazy in her touch, as if she had all the time in the world. Her body was so close to his and yet not touching him except for her stroking hand. His breathing grew labored, and if he had watched her right then, he would have seen a very smug smile play around her lips.

"Ziva," he eventually gasped into the drawn-out silence. "You're killing me here."

She laughed and scooted a bit closer to his warmth, just enough so she could rub her thigh against his and feel his hardness against her stomach.

"Oh," she said, a pondering tone to her voice. "Right. I think you already went into rigor then."

He snorted and opened his mouth to give her a wisecrack reply, but she rolled towards him and closed the last gap between their bodies to kiss him and shut him up for a while.

*** *** ***
They did quite well in the days following their weekend retreat, and Ziva soon came to the conclusion that the beginning of talk between them hadn't been the worst choice in her life. She slept better now, and he no longer complained about her hogging the covers because for some reason she had developed the habit of curling up against his side, and he certainly didn't mind that.

Sometimes she woke with his cheek on her stomach or his arm and shoulder spread all over her. Not too long ago that would have made her feel restricted, and she'd have gasped for air and escaped the possessive touch. Now, she mostly just hummed and went back to sleep.

*** *** ***
She stared at the envelope he'd thrown on her desk offhandedly, and she blinked and wondered what this was about. Her hand reached for the letter before she could censor the impulse, but when she looked up and met his eyes, she saw him shake his head slightly, so she just tucked the letter away for later.

McGee, always nosy these days, perked up and asked what was in the envelope, and Ziva glared at him for the intrusion. Tony, on the other hand, just laughed and told him it was nothing for innocent McProbie ears, and then Gibbs came back and that was it, anyway.

*** *** ***
And of course she followed him into the men's room when he gave her that look later. The one that suggested that silly Tony had left the building for a bit and this was the right moment to touch upon the more serious issues in their life. She took the envelope with her, and his gaze flicked down to it while she locked the door behind herself. He didn't say anything while she opened the letter and took out a few sheets that looked official, somehow. Test results of some kind.

"What is this?" she asked and looked at him, and for a moment he kept his head lowered and just stood like he had before, with his palms pressed to the sink and leaning heavily against it. Then he took a deep breath and raised his chin, looking at his own mirror image.

"This," he said quietly, and she saw a sudden tension deepening the lines around his eyes, "is to certify that one Very Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo tested negative for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea. And a few other things I don't remember."

Her eyes widened, and for a moment she merely stared at him, with her mouth falling open and blinking at him, not able to form a coherent response.

The tension in his shoulders grew, and after a few more seconds of silence he turned towards her, took the sheets from her hands and folded them neatly to tuck them back into the envelope. "I know this doesn't really change anything," he said, and she blinked some more and looked up at his serious face with the strangely tense mouth. "But I think trust needs a basis."

Her eyes burned suddenly, and she hated the fact that he was so easily able to do this to her these days -- make her so emotional, rip her open and split her apart with just a few words. But she also knew, deep down inside, that he was right.

"I... had extensive testing done after Somalia," she forced herself to say. "I was cleared, and I was very careful since then."

He nodded silently, and it shocked her that this time it was his eyes that showed too much emotion and too much vulnerability. "I know."

And that was it, that was him trusting her word, just like that, with no reason to believe her except--

She took a deep breath and then suddenly found herself crashing into him, her arms going around his waist and holding him so tight that he stared down at her in surprise for a moment. Then he wrapped his arms around her so hard that she had trouble breathing for a bit.

"I--" she began, and then she blinked and stumbled over something he had said. "Why does this not change anything?"

He breathed out in a shaky laugh and rubbed her back, and then he said, "You drank my blood, Ziva. That's so far from safe, I can't even--"

She blinked, and suddenly she was more than glad that he held her because his words made her feel dizzy. Because, really, she had no idea how she could ever have been so stupid.

"Easy," he said and stroked her neck while she tensed up and shuddered in his arms. "Don't freak now."

She nodded against his chest and tried to keep her breathing even, and for a moment they just stood like that, clinging to each other.

"I love you," she suddenly blurted out, and she wanted to take it back the moment she said it, because that was the part where he would run or maybe laugh at her and mock her or ignore she had even said it in the first place.

He didn't, though. "I know," he said instead, and his arms tightened around her even more. "Me, too," he added quietly, and she sensed the same hesitation, the same fight in him that was raging through her own mind right now. "But you knew that, right?"

She nodded and breathed out slowly, and then she closed her eyes and said it once more, not with words, but with the way she rose on her toes and kissed him.

Chapter Text

There were days when Leroy Jethro Gibbs admitted to himself that a part of him liked being a bastard. On some days, he even went as far as saying that he liked it when his mere presence made his minions jumpy and hyper-aware.

There was, in theory, a simple reason for that: as long as they had that edge, they paid more attention, they did good work, and they didn't get killed. He simply couldn't afford to let them off the leash. Let them screw up.

In reality, Gibbs was merely a man who liked being in control of things. If the world slipped from his grasp, it was bad, and it got people hurt, so if being a bastard made him stay on top of things and kept his own little world exactly the way it was, he was all for it. Two birds with one stone, really.

So yes, part of him found it vaguely satisfying when DiNozzo jumped as his boss rounded the corner of his desk unexpectedly and glared at his Senior Field Agent. And it looked like he'd caught him just in time -- Tony had his backpack already slung over his shoulder and had obviously been just on his way out.

Good, good. Nothing like a spoiled evening to put some respect back into the boy. Expect the unexpected, he sometimes told them. Not one of his rules, but it would have made a good one.

"Grab your gear," he said, and Tony groaned and let his head fall back.

"Please not tonight, boss."

"Tell that to the witness in the Anselmo case," Gibbs replied while he picked up his gun and car keys. He glared once more when the younger man just kept standing there with his shoulders sagging. "Come on, we don't have all night! Chop, chop!"

"'Chop, chop'? Have you been hanging with Ducky again?"

Gibbs rolled his eyes and turned towards the elevator, but on his way over he had to bite back a grin over DiNozzo's long-suffering sigh in his back. His own fault for being the last to hang around on a Friday night.

*** *** ***
In theory, it could have waited until the next day. But there was a weekend ahead, and Gibbs had a hunch that leaving it until Monday might let things cool down too much, so there was no real choice between losing a trail and annoying DiNozzo.

"So how long is this gonna take again, boss? Simple statement or all-nighter?" Tony asked just then, skipping a few steps to catch up with Gibbs as they strode across the parking deck. A slightly horrified expression spread on DiNozzo's face when he heard himself voice the dreaded word, and his eyes widened. "Please don't say all-nighter now. Just don't."

It made Gibbs stop dead in his tracks and turn around, and he felt his brows draw together in an annoyed frown. "You got plans, DiNozzo?" he asked sharply, and the edge in his voice made Tony wince. And yeah, maybe he was feeling a bit bastardly right now, because he was suddenly tempted to draw things out, just because Tony had whined like that.

But DiNozzo, who had developed an annoying tendency to surprise Gibbs these days, didn't flinch like he would have in the old days, and he certainly didn't cower. He just held his boss's gaze with something weird swirling in his eyes, something that looked a lot more solid and defined than he had been for most of the time Gibbs had known him. And then he simply gave a half-shrug and said, "Yes."

And there it was, a simple word, and one that was quite innocent most of the time. Maybe it was DiNozzo's expression, though, or the way he'd said it, but something about that "yes" suddenly tickled Gibbs's gut. Something was going on here, and he had apparently missed it. Damn.

"Who is she?" he asked, feeling his control slide away, and his frown deepened when DiNozzo's face closed down hard and fast at the question.

He waited for an answer, and his eyes narrowed when he didn't get one. Then Tony sighed and started walking towards the car again, and for a moment it felt like he was about to ignore the question completely.

"I'm supposed to pick up Ziva from the airport in an hour," he finally replied and pulled out his phone, then concentrated briefly on typing a text message. "She's coming back from Florida tonight."

Gibbs blinked and followed him, surprised by the answer and the way it kick-started the gears in his head. It wasn't a lie, but it also felt like it wasn't the whole truth, and that feeling suddenly bugged Gibbs to no end.

Not knowing what was going on with his people could get them hurt. Not knowing what they did behind his back took the reins from him.

He knew Ziva had been in Miami for almost a week, once again on Vance's orders, and briefly he wondered if she had taken the opportunity to make up with her CIA boyfriend. Not very likely, really, given the way she had brushed him off the last time he'd been in DC, but then again, he'd never understood women. Especially the smart ones, because for some reason they seemed to be a lot more prone to do incredibly stupid things.

DiNozzo's phone made a pling sound, and he watched Tony read the reply to his text. He grimaced, and Gibbs almost laughed at the well-trained doggie impression his agent gave in the face of Ziva's scorn.

"She's a big girl, she can find her way home on her own," he said, and Tony shrugged and put his cell phone away again.

"Yeah, well, you try explaining that to Ziva when she expects to get... picked up."

His tone of voice changed halfway through the sentence, and there was just the slightest stumble in his words, hardly more than a breath taken at the wrong moment, but it still ticked off Gibbs's radar. He suddenly felt something clench in his gut as a few puzzle pieces that had been evading each other so far clicked into place and presented him with an image he hadn't been prepared to face. He blinked and watched his agent's profile, and it disturbed him that he didn't see anything to contradict the image.

Expect the unexpected.

"Are you sleeping with Ziver?" he asked, and he heard his own voice ring with shock and irritation and disbelief, all at the same time.

This time Tony actually flinched at the question, and for a moment the kid clenched his jaw and made a fist as if he suddenly wanted to clock him good. And yeah, Gibbs knew how he felt right now, because goddammit, if Tony had really done that, if he'd been stupid enough to blow the good partnership they'd had--

He felt his own hands clench into fists, too, and for a moment he wasn't sure if he was more angry because DiNozzo had broken his rule yet again or because he'd dared to touch Ziva. As if there weren't enough other women out there. Others who didn't care about Tony so much. Who wouldn't care if they got played.

Then DiNozzo breathed out slowly and tilted his head until his neck cracked with barely controlled tension, almost as if he had just let go of something and then focused on other things.

"No," he said, and there was a slight smile playing around his lips suddenly that irritated Gibbs to no end. "I'm in love with Ziva."

At first the words made no sense. Not coming from DiNozzo. Then something cold ran through Gibbs and down his back. Premonition, superstition, he wasn't really sure. He just knew that his right hand suddenly clenched harder and that he felt the urge to ram his fist into that smiling mouth. Make him come to his senses through brute force. Ah, if only.

And then, just as he said "That's a bad idea", Tony turned to look at him with faint surprise in his eyes and stated flatly, "You didn't know."

Gibbs's frown deepened. "Looks like it," he replied and glared at his agent. "So why didn't you tell me?"

He half-expected the usual evasiveness and half-truths and maybe a few awkward grimaces, and all of that would have been fine with him because it would have been in the normal range of behavior for the boy. It would have been something he could have rolled his eyes at and slapped Tony's head, and then they'd all go back to normal and forget about this silly interlude.

Except that DiNozzo just snorted derisively and then turned away from him, towards the car.

"Hey!" Gibbs yelled, close to reaching out for Tony's arm and making him stay put until he was done with him. "I'm talking to you, DiNozzo! Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

Tony stopped hard in his tracks, and Gibbs saw how he squared his shoulders and held himself a little straighter, suddenly all tense and highly irritated.

Yeah, like he had a right to be angry. He was the one keeping secrets, after all.

"Because," Tony suddenly said and turned back, stalking towards Gibbs with the carefully controlled motions of a tamed tiger, "it's none of your business what happens in my bedroom." His voice was a harsh rasp all of a sudden, and the livid rumble in it made Gibbs's skin crawl. "Or Ziva's bedroom. Or my car, or the park or... wherever. It's none of your fucking business."

Gibbs felt his own eyes narrow in reaction to the words and the images they brought up, and his own anger flared up like wildfire and ate away at his insides.

"It is if it affects your work," he shot back out of reflex, and while he said it, he felt the hairs at the back of his neck rise. God, no one except the kid had ever brought him so close to losing it.

And, true to form, DiNozzo just laughed in his face then, a short bark of amusement that did nothing to cool down Gibbs's annoyance.

"Apparently, it doesn't," Tony pressed out, baring his teeth in something that could have been a smile, but most likely wasn't. "Or you would have noticed it earlier."

Gibbs glared at him, grinding his own teeth at having his failure rubbed in, and in that moment he wasn't entirely sure if he really just wanted Tony to come to his senses or if he wanted to lash out in retaliation.

"It will when it blows up in your face," he hissed, all too aware that his tone was far from what he was allowed, both as team leader and, if one could call it that, friend.

Tony didn't yell back, though. He just watched him, eerily calm, and tilted his head as he mulled Gibbs's words over in his head for a few endless moments.

"It won't," he finally stated, and there was a strange sincerity in his voice that reminded Gibbs a lot of a kid stating 'Because I say so!'

"Yeah, like all your other affairs," he spit out and watched DiNozzo's face close down a bit more.

And there it was again: the ugly truth that rule number twelve may have been created for the benefit of his own heart, for reminding himself that what he'd done with Jenny had been doomed from too early on. But the true reason it had been referred to so often over the past few years was because some part of Gibbs had always sensed with utter conviction that sooner rather than later this man would break what was left of Ziva's heart, and that all of them would be charged with picking up the pieces afterwards. Or, maybe, it would be the other way around, and she'd kick him in the face for a flimsy fabricated reason. Either way, broken shells, hearts, and their little family torn apart through the brute force of attraction gone wrong. There was no other way with these two. Too strong emotions at work here.

He glared at Tony, holding his agent's gaze and challenging him, and he expected something, anything in return -- a fight, a cringe, an apology.

Tony, though, just gave him the slightest smile, barely tickling the corners of his mouth and not quite reaching his eyes because he was still pissed.

"This is different," he said. "It'll last."

Gibbs snorted. He really liked the kid, but he couldn't help it. He didn't have the best track record after all. "How come you're so sure about that?"

Again, there was no protest and no squirming under the scrutinizing glare. For a moment, DiNozzo even met his eyes, lost in his own thoughts, and yeah, Gibbs could see there was an awful lot going on now behind those greens. Then the younger man took a deep breath and looked to the side to stare at something unnamed in the dark.

"Jethro," he said, and Gibbs blinked in surprise at hearing him say his middle name. So fucking serious. That had to be a first in ten years. "If Shannon were still alive, how often would you have been married?"

The kid sounded so sure and so uncharacteristically quiet that Gibbs was too distracted to really grasp the question at first. When he finally caught up with the words, they hit him squarely in the gut, and he swallowed, hard, fighting against the nauseating feeling of memories crashing in on him. Good memories.

Funny. In ten years he'd never noticed that the kid was actually taller than him.

He looked to the side, blinking, fighting against his instincts that demanded he kept yelling at DiNozzo, because that was what he did, that was his job. He knew it wouldn't do any good. He'd never listened when his own father had yelled at him, either.

Expect the unexpected.

And really, he should have known these two couldn't be kept apart forever. He'd seen it. He'd just never bothered to pay attention to it because he hadn't thought of it as important enough. Had never wanted to believe they'd bring up the nerve to actually try and work things out.

And now, now he was suddenly standing here, with his carefully controlled little world falling apart at the seams and coming back together in a completely different pattern, one he had, maybe, seen glimpses of before, but still couldn't figure out the bigger picture. He just knew it was something he couldn't really fight. Not without destroying something else.

"Don't ever invite me to the wedding," he pressed out through clenched teeth, and the mock sneer in his words made DiNozzo breathe out and laugh a little shakily.

"I won't," he promised with a hint of disbelief underneath the familiar mischief. "But Ziva would want you there, so no chance getting out of that one, boss."

The silence was deafening for a moment, and Gibbs wasn't sure which one of them was more shocked by the words tumbling playfully from his agent's mouth. Which one of them was more horrified and shaken by the fact that the mere mention of the W-word hadn't sent DiNozzo running and screaming.

His own throat suddenly felt constricted, and Tony met his gaze, slightly pale and suddenly wary because he had no idea what to expect now. New territory for him as well.

"Get your ass in the car, DiNozzo," he growled and strode out fast, and that was that, for the moment.

*** *** ***
The unnerving silence followed them into the car, and Gibbs really did his best to concentrate on the traffic, but that turned out to be harder than expected when DiNozzo kept shooting him sideways glances.

'Stop staring!' he wanted to snarl, but forced himself to keep his mouth shut. It wouldn't have done much good.

But it was only a matter of time before he was too unnerved by the silent scrutiny, and so, at one point, he did snap. "Something on my nose, DiNozzo?"

It was almost rewarding to see that he hadn't lost his touch completely -- this time Tony did flinch, then he stared at his lap for a moment.

"No, boss," he said and glanced out of the passenger side window with a slight frown. "Wasn't my decision alone, you know. Ziva asked me to keep quiet. Seemed better, until things were a little more settled. And then... well." He shrugged, running out of words that made sense.

"Since when do you do what she asks you to?" Gibbs barked, still skirting the edges of annoyance, and Tony laughed and rubbed his neck with an awkward grin. It made Gibbs want to smack him even harder. Maybe even pull up the car to beat some sense into him.

"So, uhm." Tony glanced at him again and then hesitated. "I may be totally off here, but... are we good about this...?"

Part of him wanted to nod and say, go on with your life, all's fine. His gut told him they'd try to make it work, after all. But he couldn't say it because this situation went against all his beliefs, acquired over the years, against all the things that had kept him safe. And there was still that part of him that couldn't believe DiNozzo had really stopped listening to him. Not after Gibbs had dragged his sorry ass through so much shit it wasn't funny anymore.

"No, we're not good. Not by a long shot," he replied sharply, even though he knew it was a moot point. He had already lost this particular fight before he'd opened his mouth. "I should let Vance deal with you. Find you some other team where you can break the rules all you want."

He expected shock, maybe anger, but all he got was Tony blinking and watching him quietly for a moment, a strange kind of disappointment in his eyes.

"Go ahead," the younger man said eventually, and there it was again, that eerily calm conviction that made Gibbs more uncomfortable than the stares the late Mike Franks had given him in his time. "It won't change a thing. Ziva's in my life, and she's gonna stay there."

And yeah, he'd kinda known that part already. Didn't mean he had to embrace it.

"That bad?" He ground his teeth because dammit, he didn't really want to know. But he still had to know. To prepare. To take the unexpectedness out of this.

And DiNozzo, damn him, really, yanked his chain again without meaning to, because he suddenly smiled and glanced at his hands in his lap. "No," he said, his voice low and wistful and the tiniest bit lovesick. "That good."

Something tightened in his gut at the way Tony said these words. And the something suddenly remembered how it was to feel that way. To have someone in your life who was... enough.

And yeah, alright, he got the picture. If he had the habit of being a little more honest with himself, he'd have to admit that he had noticed how something had been going on with Tony lately. He had seen that there was some part of DiNozzo that almost desperately wanted to grow up all of a sudden, for whatever reason. He'd just refused to acknowledge it before because then he'd have been forced to wonder what the reason for this change was. And then he would have had to admit that it was probably a pretty damn good case of cause and effect at work here.

Gibbs turned the car sharply, and while he searched for a spot to park, he felt Tony's eyes stuck on him. Watching him and trying to figure out what was going on in his boss's head now.

"New rule," he pressed out, and yeah, that brought up a frown on DiNozzo's face pretty fast. "Don't ever do it at work."

There was no answer to that concession, only more silence, and so he glanced at his Senior Field Agent curiously. He groaned at the expression he saw -- his eyes the tiniest bit shifty and his expression just politely-neutral enough to be tell-tale.

"Ah, geez!" he muttered. "DiNozzo!"

"Sorry, boss," the answer came automatically, his tone of voice promising he'd never do it again... while he was simultaneously trying to figure out a way to repeat his sin a.s.a.p. He'd heard that tone a lot over the past ten years, and Gibbs found that his exasperation with it hadn't changed all that much, even though the reasons apparently had.

He sighed and clenched his hands around the steering wheel. Some part of him expected more of a comment from the younger man, but DiNozzo stayed strangely quiet, and after a while, Gibbs glanced at him sideways again, just to find that he was being watched. Something hard to control threatened to split Tony's face into a grin. Why the fuck was he wallowing in glee all of a sudden?

"What?" Gibbs growled, and Tony shook his head, not able to keep the shit-eating grin at bay any longer.

"You had no clue," he snorted. "All this time, with your gut and us right under your nose, and you seriously had no fucking clue!" His chuckle turned into real laughter then, rising from deep in his belly and leaving him in shakes. "Man, Ziva's gonna love this..."

Gibbs kept glaring. Tony kept laughing until he reached the point where he had to stop to catch his breath, hold his sides and wipe tears out of his eyes. Jesus, he seriously wanted to smack the kid around now. Hard.

"When did this start again?" he asked, just to figure out the extent of hilarity at work here.

Tony barked out another amused cackle before he suddenly straightened up, turned in his seat and faced his boss with a very solemn expression that, just like his previous laughter, seemed to spring up out of nowhere.

And yeah, he'd always known the kid had a bit of a mean bastard streak in him, too. It had been one of the reasons he'd picked him in the first place, after all. He'd just never seen it at work towards his own boss, so it surprised him when DiNozzo didn't answer the question, just fought with his grin some more and then offered, "Guess."